U.S. Representative Darrell Issa pressed the Labor Department to review its security procedures for jobless figures and other economic data as the agency weighs changing the way it releases such information to the media.
In a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis released yesterday, Issa said the government-run Sandia National Laboratories, which was charged with studying how the agency disseminates the data, wasn’t allowed to examine all potential security shortcomings.
“It is apparent that Sandia was prevented from examining the full scope of the department’s handling of economically significant data,” Issa, a California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in the June 12 letter. “Sandia found unexamined flaws in the process that potentially put the sensitive economic information handled by the department at significantly more risk than the lock-up procedures.”
The Labor Department issued an order on April 10 requiring journalists who are given access to the data in advance, to give them time to prepare stories before figures are publicly released, to use government computers and other equipment. The agency and news organizations are negotiating changes to rules described in the order, though no conclusion has been reached.
Bloomberg News and other media organizations have opposed changes in the department’s procedures, saying the revisions would violate press freedom. Agency officials told the committee the new policy is needed to ensure that sensitive economic figures aren’t released prematurely.
The new policy would change a longstanding practice that lets news organizations use their own computers, phone and data lines to file and transmit stories about unemployment figures and consumer prices from so-called lock-ups at the Labor Department. Under the new procedures, reporters would be required to use government computer equipment, software and Internet connections.
Journalists are provided the market-sensitive data on an embargoed basis to give them time to write and edit stories at the agency. When the data are released, a Labor Department official flips a switch to let news organizations transmit.
Agency officials told Issa’s committee earlier this month that the changes, which they said were based on the Sandia recommendations, are needed to ensure the figures aren’t released prematurely.
In his letter to Solis, Issa demanded a copy of Sandia’s analysis by June 26. Stephen Barr, a Labor Department spokesman, said the agency is “carefully reviewing” Issa’s request. Barr said that Sandia was selected “specifically” to look at its procedures regarding print reporters because “that was the focus of concerns and complaints and the Sandia review was limited to the print media.”
Requiring journalists to use government-provided software, hardware and dedicated lines would inhibit journalistic independence, and “as the government grows more concerned about cyber security, the proposed policy would create a single point of failure,” Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, wrote May 8 in a letter to Solis.
“The public has benefited enormously from the process the department currently uses,” according to the letter. “The practice used to this point ensures the simultaneous release of information while also providing time that enables reporters to place the new data in meaningful context.”
The initiative’s members include the American Society of News Editors, the Online News Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. A representative of Bloomberg News testified at an oversight committee hearing on the matter last week.