Porn On The Federal Payroll

A television station in Washington, D.C. sent a Freedom of Information Act request to 12 federal agencies.  The FOIA request, directed to the inspector generals of the 12 agencies, sought records of cases of “egregious on-the-job pornography” viewing by federal employees at the 12 agencies.

lawmaker-calls-to-block-federal-employees-porn-accessIn response, the inspector generals produced records showing that almost 100 federal employees at the 12 agencies were caught, or admitted to, watching vast amounts of porn while at work.  One employee, at the Environmental Protection Agency offices in Washington, D.C., said he had spent up to six hours a day watching porn for “several years.”  A patent and trademark employee at the Department of Commerce was found to have made 1,800 connections to pornographic websites and told investigators, by way of explanation:  “When I am working hard, I go to these images to take a mental break.”  A worker at the Federal Railroad Administration was found to have searched for porn for 252 hours in one year.  And some of the cases addressed in the inspector general records were criminal in nature, because they involved viewing child pornography.

Watching porn on the job apparently falls within the category of “computer misuse,” which is subject to different penalties at different federal agencies, with sanctions ranging from a written reprimand to suspensions and termination.  As one deputy assistant inspector general put it, the computer systems, and the employees, are supposed to be performing government work while on the job, and checking out porn instead constitutes some of the “waste, fraud, and abuse” we taxpayers often hear politicians talk about.  Notably, the TV station report provides no information on whether disciplinary action was taken against the supervisors of the employee who says he spent six hours a day watching porn on his work computer for several years without being detected, or whether the EPA concluded that his job clearly wasn’t necessary and could be eliminated.

About 100 employees out of the vast payrolls of the 12 federal agencies obviously isn’t a huge percentage; you’re going to find a few “bad apples” in just about any workplace.  But the TV station FOIA request was targeted specifically at “egregious” porn viewing, and the fact that federal employees can spend hours watching porn on the job watching pornography, undetected, just adds fuel to the budget-cutting and payroll-cutting fire.  President Trump’s budget plans already have federal employees worried that federal payrolls are going to be slashed.  Don’t be surprised if, in the debate about downsizing the federal government, bureaucratic porn-watching habits get trotted out as a talking point.

The Governmental Accountability Problem

On Thursday the State Department’s Inspector General issues a report stating that $6 billion in contracting money spent by the Department over the last six years cannot be properly accounted for. The report noted “significant financial risk” and “lack of institutional control” and, astonishingly, reported that the State Department could not even produce contract files documenting precisely how $2.1 billion was spent.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of the report is the apparent utter lack of concern about accountability in spending our tax money. In the State Department, the inspector general position — which is supposed to be a kind of public watchdog — went unfilled for almost six years. Moreover, there have been fraud warnings and prior reports about slapdash controls and accounting for money shoveled overseas and paid to private contractors, and the State Department failed to address the problems.

I have two reactions to this news. First, this is the kind of story that feeds the fury of fiscal conservatives, who believe that the federal government takes too much of our money and then simply wastes a lot of it. The government takes in and spends so much money that even an astronomical sum like $6 billion is only a drop in the bucket — but we’ll never know precisely how that $6 billion was spent and how much of that money was lost to fraud, corruption, or simple overspending by unconcerned bureaucrats. How could an important position like inspector general go unfilled for six years?

People who support big government spending tend to pooh-pooh the focus on “waste, fraud, and abuse,” but I remain convinced that a federal government that actually had to tighten its belt because of budget reductions would find lots of places where money could be saved or spending reprioritized. At present, with the federal government awash in cash fueled by constant, large-scale deficit spending, the government has no incentive to be careful and prudent in its spending — and as a result reports and warnings about financial accountability tend to be ignored.

Second, this story can’t help whatever presidential aspirations Hillary Clinton may have. She ran the State Department for much of the period when accountability was lacking and warnings apparently were disregarded. As I understand it, part of her pitch is that she would be more fiscally conservative than other Democrats who might seek the presidency — but this report really undercuts the perception of careful stewardship of the public fisc that Hillary Clinton is trying to project. If you strongly believe that the government needs to get its fiscal house in order, how can you vote for someone who presided over a department that couldn’t even document how it spent $6 billion? If a public company were in a similar situation, the CEO would be fired, the SEC investigators would be knocking at the door, and private lawsuits would be inevitable.

It may never happen, but wouldn’t it be refreshing if we elected administrations that actually paid attention to the unglamorous nuts and bolts of accounting for their spending, reassessed whether long-time programs were still truly needed, tried to save a penny here and there, and acted like they took financial responsibility seriously, rather than worrying about immediately jetting off to some faraway location for a photo op with a reset button?

The NSA And Human Frailty

Last week the Inspector General of the National Security Agency admitted to 12 instances where NSA employees engaged in “intentional misuse” of data gathering programs.  Most of the dozen incidents, predictably, involved NSA employees spying on their spouses or significant others.

It’s not clear how often NSA employees cross the line and engage in this kind of conduct.  The Inspector General letter was in response to a request from Republican Senator Charles Grassley, who sought information on “intentional and willful” abuse of NSA surveillance authority, and the letter reports on “substantial instances” where employees were caught engaging in “intentional misuse” of NSA data-gathering capabilities.  Who knows how often such spying goes undetected, or is covered up by a phony excuse for the surveillance, or is deemed not sufficiently “substantial” to warrant disclosure?

NSA analysts are human, like the rest of us.  If you hire a person to work for a super-secret entity and give him incredibly powerful surveillance tools that allow him to track and gather confidential information about anyone, there is going to be significant temptation to use that access to check out girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, family members, that loudmouth neighbor, and the bullies who made seventh grade a miserable time.  In one telling incident, an NSA employee was caught improperly reading the emails of his girlfriend and six other people on the first day he was given access to surveillance programs.  The guy just couldn’t resist the opportunity to snoop on his girlfriend — and I’m guessing he’s not alone.

People are people, whether they work for the NSA or the local Starbucks.  Give them a chance to listen in on conversations or read private emails that might mention their name, and at least some of them are going to do it.  With the lack of meaningful oversight of the NSA, due to its super-secret status, the temptation to dip into forbidden territory must be even greater.

We really need to revisit what we are doing with our surveillance programs and figure out a way to address the routine gathering of huge amounts of information — and the inevitable abuses that follow.  In the meantime, people who are dating NSA employees should be on guard.