Lawmakers, watchdogs question 20-year seal on wartime contracting records

Lawmakers and government watchdog groups are panning a decision to keep the Wartime Contracting Commission’s records under wraps for two decades.

Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who crafted the legislation that spawned the special commission, questioned the decision to seal for 20 years the records of a group created to shine a light on government ailments.

“We need to live in the light,” the senators wrote in a Nov. 7 letter to David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States. “Sealing records for 20 years is inconsistent with the goals we established for the commission when Congress acted to create the commission three years ago.”

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Sources tell The Hill government watchdog groups raised the issue with Ferriero in a Thursday meeting.

The flap comes weeks after the Wartime Contracting Commission’s final report revealed between $31 billion and $61 billion of the more than $205 billion spent on private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan has been lost to waste and fraud.

Webb and McCaskill urged Ferriero to “take immediate steps to publicly release the permanent records.”

Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, told The Hill in an email that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) “has a responsibility to process these records so that no personal or other sensitive information is released, and we understand that takes time.

“Ultimately, though, these records contain information about how public resources were used and wasted. The public has a right to see as much of that information as possible,” McDermott said. “We encourage NARA to use the discretion available to it to make the greatest number of the Commission's records available to the public in the shortest possible period of time."

NARA, which is headed by Ferriero, is considering several options for how best to handle the panel’s records, sources said.

NARA controls the documents for archival purposes, but because the records are technically legislative documents, they cannot be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the archiving agency. And with the commission already shutting down its operations, it is unclear just where FOIA requests should be sent.

The 20-year seal is an “excessive delay,” the senators wrote, calling for a full document dump.

“The importance of public disclosure relates directly to the commission’s original legislative mandate — to assess contingency contracting for reconstruction, logistics, and security functions; to examine the extent of waste, fraud, and abuse; and to improve the structure, policies, and resources for managing the contracting process and contractors,” the senators wrote. “The commission’s own work stressed the importance of increasing transparency and accountability for contracting operations.