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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  • icon
    BentFranklin (profile), 17 Mar 2015 @ 8:19am

    If the information is currently classified, how can it become unclassified even if approved by Congress?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 17 Mar 2015 @ 10:14am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 12:01pm

      Re:

      I blame the Pentagon Trade Representative.

      I mean, it's always the CIA.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      DogBreath, 17 Mar 2015 @ 12:02pm

      Re:

      How would C-SPAN even cover the vote?

      I think it could only ever be aired like this.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 12:38pm

      Re:

      Curiously, the only branch of government that the constitution mentions as being able to keep secrets is Congress.


      "Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such Parts as may in their Judgment require Secrecy;"

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 2:10pm

      Re:

      "If the information is currently classified, how can it become unclassified even if approved by Congress?"

      No problem. It doesn't have to. Just another secret law to go along with secret courts, secret indictments, etc., etc...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      AntiFish03 (profile), 17 Mar 2015 @ 2:36pm

      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...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 7:24pm

        Re: Re:

        "The above cannot be enforced..."

        They may or may not able to obtain a conviction, but they can ruin a person with prosecution alone.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 17 Mar 2015 @ 10:19am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 12:21pm

      Re: Hatred doesn't spend well, money does

      Who has the most to gain from non-transparent influence on trade agreements? Large multi-national corporations.

      Who contributes most to Republicans? Large multi-national corporations.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Mike Soja, 17 Mar 2015 @ 11:29pm

        Re: Re: Hatred doesn't spend well, money does

        Who contributes most to Republicans? Large multi-national corporations.

        Like the Democrats aren't on the take, also?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        John Fenderson (profile), 18 Mar 2015 @ 8:00am

        Re: Re: Hatred doesn't spend well, money does

        And who contributes the most to Democrats? Large multi-national corporations. That's one of the reasons why you are falling into a trap when you cast things in a partisan light.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 17 Mar 2015 @ 11:25am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      techjazz, 17 Mar 2015 @ 2:01pm

      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?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    jupiterkansas (profile), 17 Mar 2015 @ 12:13pm

    The only purpose of classifying this information is to keep it from the American people.

    i.e. "the enemy"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 12:28pm

    "Double Secret Probation"

    Animal House invented this first:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0cF2piwjYQ

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Dave Cortright (profile), 17 Mar 2015 @ 12:35pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Christopher (profile), 17 Mar 2015 @ 12:37pm

    Indict the USTR

    I like preemption, previously mentioned: Congress should call them to account and have them prosecuted for even thinking about such a stunt. The USTR is the enemy.

    -C

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 12:42pm

    You can't prosecute a representative for 'publishing' it on the house or senate floor.

    That's exactly what someone should do to call their bluff against threats of prosecution.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      techjazz, 17 Mar 2015 @ 2:48pm

      Re: 'publishing' the TPP text in congress

      The only one with those kind of cajones is Grayson. That's a hint Alan...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 9:15pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 12:43pm

    USTR? More like USSR imo.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Hero, 17 Mar 2015 @ 12:45pm

    Problem Solved

    Why don't we just get Gen. Patraeus to leak it?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    tqk (profile), 17 Mar 2015 @ 12:55pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 17 Mar 2015 @ 1:10pm

      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 ...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jason, 17 Mar 2015 @ 12:58pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 17 Mar 2015 @ 1:01pm

    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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Vic, 17 Mar 2015 @ 1:23pm

    Who are the terrorists here?

    C'mon USTR! If you're doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide! Just ask DOJ!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    tqk (profile), 17 Mar 2015 @ 1:26pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 1:28pm

    What do we do?

    So, as constituents, are we to contact our reps and senators and demand that they not support a trade agreement that has been negotiated in complete secrecy from the very public it is supposed to benefit?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 2:49pm

      Re: What do we do?

      Yes!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 3:40pm

        Re: Re: What do we do?

        I did... my rep is Republican, but he tends to impress me by not making decisions based on partisan B.S., so I'm hoping he'll take the USTR to task before voting yes on any of this crap.

        My Senators are Boxer and Feinstein, so... I'm not going to bother contacting them.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    tqk (profile), 17 Mar 2015 @ 1:41pm

    I may be repeating myself, but ...

    Why do international trade deals need to be classified secret? What purpose does that serve, from the perspective of a US citizen, that is? Why is it we didn't used to do this, and why is it we now are?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 2:51pm

      Re: I may be repeating myself, but ...

      Citizens United. Previously corporations were only persons for limited purposes having to do with certain legal matters. Until Citizens United, they were not 'persons' for the purpose of 'speech' AKA vote rigging.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anon, 17 Mar 2015 @ 1:42pm

    on the Plus Side

    What better way to get the approval of those who have to pass this, than to threaten them and harass them, and twist their staff in Kafkhaesque knots?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 17 Mar 2015 @ 1:45pm

    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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 2:00pm

    There is no way that these trade agreements can be approved by congress. Our "leaders" have to act the part and stop signing off on things that they can't really review and get an understanding of. I won't even get started on the President who is allowing all of this to happen...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Ambrellite, 17 Mar 2015 @ 2:05pm

    Scary

    Imagine negotiating a major trade deal with representatives of the US, knowing they've cloaked the briefings in secrecy-under threat of prosecution!-to keep their own people from protesting.

    Horrifying.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 2:14pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 2:25pm

    Yet another step toward Communism.

    This has many creepy parallels to the Tienanmen Square Massacre. Both are kept under secrecy, both are contrary to democracy, and both are examples of the wrong kind of governance. The only difference is this hasn't killed a large, unidentified number of dissenters (yet).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    MarcAnthony (profile), 17 Mar 2015 @ 3:18pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 3:33pm

      Re: Capacity and secrecy

      If I remember correctly, there was some discussion in earlier articles where even if the agreements are not ratified by the negotiating countries, there is enough agreed to that certain provisions still take place. I think I read that here.

      I wonder how that can be?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2015 @ 3:57pm

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Padpaw (profile), 17 Mar 2015 @ 5:12pm

    that is a sure fire sign that it will only benefit the few writing it.

    The ones pushing it should be arrested on charges of suspicion of treason

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 17 Mar 2015 @ 7:46pm

    Where are 47 Republican senators to write a letter when we need one?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mike Soja, 17 Mar 2015 @ 10:44pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pragmatic, 18 Mar 2015 @ 8:46am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Foody, 18 Mar 2015 @ 9:39am

    Re: Hatred doesn't spend well, money does

    Money has everything to do with it. Classified trade agreement. My bet is GMO food. The manufactures are so insistent on hiding this stuffs its escalating into a cover up. GMO's don't make greater yields they mean more profit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    GEMont (profile), 18 Mar 2015 @ 11:41pm

    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.

    ---

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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