USTR Pushes Congress To Approve Trade Deals… But Threatens Reps With Criminal Prosecution If They Tell The Public What's In Them

from the transparency! dept

For years now, we’ve been trying to understand why the US Trade Rep (USTR) is so anti-transparency with its trade negotiations. It insists that everything it’s negotiating be kept in near total secrecy until everything is settled, and the public can no longer give input to fix the problems in the agreement. It’s a highly questionable stance. Whenever this criticism is put to the USTR directly, it responds by saying that it will listen to anyone who wants to come and talk to the USTR. But, as we’ve explained multiple times, “listening” is about information going into the USTR. “Transparency” is about information coming out of the USTR. They’re not the same thing by any stretch of the imagination.

As the fight over new trade agreements gets louder and louder, a key stumbling block is having Congress approve so-called “fast track authority” or “Trade Promotion Authority,” which basically means that Congress can’t even jump in to try to fix the problems in whatever the USTR negotiates — it can only give a straight “yes” or “no” vote on the entire package. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Congressional Republicans are all for this, even though it means directly giving up Congress’s Constitutional authority to a President that the Republicans appear to hate. Meanwhile, Democrats seem reasonably skeptical of these new trade deals.

So the White House and the USTR have been pushing a charm offensive on Congressional Democrats concerning these trade deals, but the charm offensive also comes with this rather startling statement: if you reveal what we’re telling you, you may go to jail:

As the Obama administration gives House Democrats a hard sell on a major controversial trade pact this week, it will be doing so under severe conditions: Any member of Congress who shares information with the public from a Wednesday briefing could be prosecuted for a crime.

Yes, the USTR has declared that the briefing is entirely classified. Why? Mainly to keep the details secret from the American public. As Rep. Alan Grayson notes:

“It is part of a multi-year campaign of deception and destruction. Why do we classify information? It’s to keep sensitive information out of the hands of foreign governments. In this case, foreign governments already have this information. They’re the people the administration is negotiating with. The only purpose of classifying this information is to keep it from the American people.”

The USTR’s lame response to all of this is that any member of Congerss is allowed to come to its office and see the text of the negotiating documents. But that’s misleading in the extreme. As we’ve discussed before, the USTR tells elected officials that they can’t copy anything, take any notes, or even bring staff experts on trade agreements (or related issues)… even when those staffers have security clearance.

We pointed out this was a problem back in 2012 and it appears to be ongoing. The Huffington Post article above quotes Rep. Rosa DeLauro who appears to be having the same problem:

“Even now, when they are finally beginning to share details of the proposed deal with Members of Congress, they are denying us the ability to consult with our staff or discuss details of the agreement with experts. This flies in the face of how past negotiations have been conducted and does not help the Administration?s credibility. If the TPP would be as good for American jobs as they claim, there should be nothing to hide.”

Rep. Lloyd Doggett also seems amazed that his staffers with security clearance are blocked from getting information about the TPP agreement:

“I tried to find out what level of classification applies,” he said. “Can my top cleared staff read it? If he can hear about ISIS, is there something in here that prevents him from seeing these trade documents?”

It really does make you wonder, once again, just what is the USTR hiding here? There is simply no reason to keep these details secret — except if you know that the American public won’t approve of them.

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Comments on “USTR Pushes Congress To Approve Trade Deals… But Threatens Reps With Criminal Prosecution If They Tell The Public What's In Them”

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56 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Shush you, you’re not supposed to think about it, just sit down and shut up like a good little citizen.

Sarcasm aside, your comment is dead on, if they’re being this secret at this stage, claiming that even people with high security clearance aren’t allowed access to the documents because they’re ‘just too sensitive to be talked about’, there is no way they’ll make them public should they manage to shove them through a well paid congress. Instead, at that point expect nothing less than a continuation of the total secrecy, with any details requiring lawsuits to pry lose.

AntiFish03 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Umm the Speech or Debate Clause(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speech_or_Debate_Clause) means that a congress person as long as they are on the floor of either the senate or the house cannot be charged with a crime for reading something into record.

Any member of Congress who shares information with the public from a Wednesday briefing could be prosecuted for a crime.

The above cannot be enforced…

That One Guy (profile) says:

Hatred doesn't spend well, money does

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Congressional Republicans are all for this, even though it means directly giving up Congress’s Constitutional authority to a President that the Republicans appear to hate.

It’s simple enough to explain when you think about it. ‘Hatred’ doesn’t make ‘donations’ or ‘campaign contributions’. ‘Hatred’ doesn’t offer lucrative positions once you’re out of office. ‘Hatred’ doesn’t host lavish ‘fund-raisers’ or offer other completely-above-board(promise) perks to ‘friends’.

Basically, as much as they may hate Obama, they love their money and power even more, so in this case at least they’re willing to put the hatred aside and focus on the money.

Ninja (profile) says:

So they are threatening the Congress with lawsuits. A Congress/Senate representative (or a group) should go to the courts and ask about it preemptively if they can actually represent the public and release details that will impact the people that put him there. I doubt there’s much ground to keep the thing entirely secret. And this is a blatant disrespect from the Executive towards the legislative (though truth be said, some of them would be happy to be relieved of their work and simply cash in their salaries it seems).

If the USTR was keeping military agreements secret it would make sense. The entire thing, specially if it may need legislative changes makes absolutely no sense.

techjazz says:

Re: TPP/TTIP etc

IMO It makes sense if the ratification of these “treaties” spell lights out for democracy and lights out for sovereignty at every level – personal, local, state, national. Disclosure would mean revolt, or at least a SHTF event that would not end well. Obama was puppetized long ago. Do you think he would have supported this 10 years ago?

Dave Cortright says:

FUD ignores the Speech and Debate Clause

My understanding is that any member of congress can read and submit any document into the congressional record as a part of their duties and be free from repercussions. Well at least legal ones. They could be shunned and excluded from the sphere of influence after that.

And that’s probably the crux of it. No Congressional member thinks this is the ditch worth dying in. Especially if there’s no chance the fast track will be passed by both bodies AND signed by the president.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: FUD ignores the Speech and Debate Clause

Unless I’m mistaken, after these last elections the republicans control both houses, and Obama’s already made it clear that he’s in favor of FTT, so without strong opposition the odds are good that FTT, and the terrible ‘trade’ agreements related to it would coast right through without so much as a minor hiccup.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

As much as I’d like to see this happen, it can’t – not won’t, but CAN’T. Reading or entering information into the Congressional Record requires physical possession of the information. This has been totally prevented by the USTR’s access policy. Gee, I wonder why??? Also, since when can one threaten Congress – for any reason – and survive? Something is seriously wrong here and needs to be investigated.

tqk (profile) says:

USTR == Clusterfsck + !@#$storm; cognitive meltdown guaranteed.

It’s a highly questionable stance.

Don’t mince words. It’s either insane or illegal or both. Taxpayers pay USTR’s and his boss’ salary! Everything the USTR does, and how it demands it done, is ridiculous. How politicians get away with !@#$ like this, I don’t know. They should be laughed out of town when they present it for consideration. The whole thing’s a pathetic farce!

Reminds me of civil forfeiture. Insane on its face.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: USTR == Clusterfsck + !@#$storm; cognitive meltdown guaranteed.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Congressional Republicans are all for this [fast track], even though it means directly giving up Congress’s Constitutional authority to a President that the Republicans appear to hate. Meanwhile, Democrats seem reasonably skeptical of these new trade deals.

So the White House and the USTR have been pushing a charm offensive on Congressional Democrats concerning these trade deals …

Is this fscked up or what? WTF is going on in Washington? Are you people crazy?

If only there was some sort of nationwide investigation thingie that would look into anomalies such as this …

Jason says:

The cynic in me...

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Congressional Republicans are all for this, even though it means directly giving up Congress’s Constitutional authority to a President that the Republicans appear to hate.

…would wonder if they’re just assuming there will be a Republican president come 2017, and so are willing to give up their authority to a president they hate—for a little while—so that one they’ll like will inherit it next.

David says:

The simple answer is things like this deserve a vote of “No”. If I can’t see it and/or have staff review it to make it understandable, I couldn’t vote for it. Unless you’re Pelosi, you don’t vote for it to find out what’s in it.

Isn’t that a shady car-salesman trick? Tell you to sign something without reading/understanding the fine print?

tqk (profile) says:

USA Pigstie, 2015.

There is simply no reason to keep these details secret.

Sure, there is. Who’s pushing the USTR to implement this? They want to keep their names out of it letting the USTR carry the spear instead. I wonder why? I’ll guess Hollywood and Big Pharma are in front. I’ll guess there’s plenty of other “moochers” standing right behind them cheering it on.

You’ve created a uniquely accessible form of government, USA, but for special interests, not you. Kind of stinks of Imperial Rome, but whatever works right?

Sorry for this but, wallow in it.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

So no one is talking (seriously, at least) about bringing criminal charges against the 47 Traitors, who actually and obviously broke the law, and did so in a blatant and insulting attempt to undermine the President’s authority, but the President is threatening Congressmen of his own party with prosecution for doing something that they are completely within their rights to do? (See the Speech and Debate Clause and the Pentagon Papers for reference and precedent.)

Is it just me or is Barack Obama getting more and more ridiculous as time goes by?

Anonymous Coward says:

But, as we’ve explained multiple times, “listening” is about information going into the USTR. “Transparency” is about information coming out of the USTR. They’re not the same thing by any stretch of the imagination.

If “listening” was the same as “transparency”, the NSA would qualify as the most “transparent” organization in the world.

MarcAnthony (profile) says:

Capacity and secrecy

Congress lacks the capacity to enter into an agreement that abdicates their governmental role. They are, supposedly, in their position to act both as check and balance and as our representatives. We can’t be represented in something we don’t know about and that they can’t change by vote or even discuss. No negotiation is so sensitive that its terms should be hidden from the people until the deal is a fait accompli. This would be riot-worthy material to the likes of Franklin or Adams. If state actors want to sell us all down the river by classifying f’ing everything, then it becomes time to consider impeachment or a vote of no confidence.

Mike Soja (profile) says:

USTR, et. al.

For years now, we’ve been trying to understand why the US Trade Rep (USTR) is so anti-transparency with its trade negotiations.

For months now, I’ve been trying to understand what TechDirt doesn’t understand about the nature of the government alphabet bureaucracy.

Hint: It’s what you get when you cede individual rights to third parties, who once ensconced in power begin to look after their own interests, instead of yours.

But there is Masnick, and the majority of commenters, failing to see that the failure was in the initiation of the USTR and that everything following on is just an endless soap opera of finger pointing and ill-informed accusations respecting the conduct of the USTR that will never be resolved. The creation of the political institution establishes a de facto corrupt entity that every avowed stakeholder will seek to hold sway over.

Pragmatic says:

The most Progressive trade agreement in history? This is Doublespeak!

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Congressional Republicans are all for this, even though it means directly giving up Congress’s Constitutional authority to a President that the Republicans appear to hate.

$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

You can’t give these people the benefit of the doubt. As for what’s in the agreement, follow the money trail from Fast Track enthusiasts to their campaign donors. It’s pretty much anything that benefits those guys.

GEMont (profile) says:

ISIS: the Top Secret Terrorist Organization.

“Can my top cleared staff read it? If he can hear about ISIS, is there something in here that prevents him from seeing these trade documents?”

Personally, I’d like very much to know what kind of secret information his top cleared staff can hear about ISIS, that the run of the mill American Citizen is not allowed to hear.

That would be very interesting methinks.

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