STOCK Act Threatens Safety and Privacy Not Only of National Security Officials but of All Senior Federal Executives and Their Families
Here’s a challenge: Can either President Obama or any member of Congress explain why it makes good sense to require 28,000 senior executive officials to post their financial disclosure forms (containing extremely detailed information about the checking accounts, savings accounts, stocks, bonds, and assets and debts of the senior executive AND his/her spouse and dependent children) on the websites of their agency home pages and thereafter to allow the information to be searchable and sortable on the Office of Government Ethics website and accessible to nearly seven billion people around the world, including numerous groups and governments with hostile intent towards the U.S. Government? If so, I would like to hear the rationale for Section 11 of the STOCK Act, which became law in April and would have required financial disclosure forms of senior federal officials to be posted by August 31.
As I have previously explained, Section 11 seriously threatens the national security and safety of senior executive officials and their families. Executive branch officials (and their spouses and children) who have significant wealth (perhaps through marriage, inheritance, or prior employment) will be prime targets for kidnapping in dangerous countries where they may be posted around the world. If the young child of an Army general or a senior Foreign Service officer with significant assets is kidnapped and held for ransom in Colombia or Mexico or Kenya, the family will surely blame the members of Congress who drafted Section 11 — and rightly so. Moreover, foreign intelligence services will now have a easy, one-click road-map for targeting executive branch officials with significant debts or other exploitable financial arrangements. What was Congress thinking? The answer: they weren’t. President Obama also shares some of the blame for this misguided legislation because he signed the STOCK Act over the objections of departments and agencies, without expressing concern about the impact of Section 11 on federal officials.
Fortunately, before going on recess in August, Congress had second thoughts about the wisdom of Section 11 and passed a thirty-day extension for its implementation. During recess, some good-government-minded Congressional staff (and, I hope, White House staff) have been considering possible options for waivers or exceptions to protect national security officials. But Congress and the White House should go further to revise the internet posting requirement for other senior executive officials in order to protect them from identity theft and cyber-crime and to protect the private financial information of these officials and especially of their non-government spouses and children, for the reasons explained below the break.
1. The Ethics in Government Act of 1978 — which first mandated the filing of financial disclosure forms by senior executive officials and allowed individual forms to be requested by members of the press or public — was enacted long before the advent of the Internet. Congress never contemplated that the detailed financial information required on the forms (checking accounts, savings accounts, and listings of every stock, bond, or debt) would be made available to 7 billion people around the world.
2. Worldwide disclosure of the private financial information of executive officials is inconsistent with the Privacy Act of 1974, which prohibits the disclosure of personally identifiable information maintained in government records.
3. Disclosure of detailed financial information about senior executive officials — not just national security officials — will make these officials prime targets for identity theft and cyber-hacking. At a time when Congress and the White House are considering other legislation to prevent identity theft and cyber-hacking, they should not serve up career federal officials as easy targets.
4. Worldwide public disclosure of the financial disclosure forms of senior executive officials is especially unfair to, and threatens the privacy of, the spouses and dependent children of senior executives. In passing Section 11 of the STOCK Act, Congress was certainly not aware that they were requiring that the employment and detailed financial holdings of the spouses and children of senior executive officials also be posted on the Internet. These individuals do not work for the federal government. Why should they be penalized and give up their financial privacy because their spouses or parents are public servants?
Congress is right to consider a waiver or exemption from Section 11 for national security officials. But they should go further, either to strike Section 11 altogether, or to amend Section 11 to protect federal officials from identity theft and invasion of their right to privacy and the privacy of their spouses and children.