Every new administration brings with it changes in policy, priorities, and messaging. That’s normal. What’s not normal, however, is the Trump administration's attempt to place a number of federal agencies under secretive blanket gag orders. POGO has learned that, on Sunday, the heads of government agencies were told to refrain from all external communications, an order that was partially walked back on Monday.
We’re hearing now that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been directed to cease all external communications, including press releases and social media posts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reportedly ordered staff to route all media inquiries and press releases through the office of the Secretary. A memo to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—which includes the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—reportedly forbids them from sending “any correspondence to public officials.”
To be sure, previous presidents have tried to control the outflow of information. Most recently, the Society for Professional Journalists assailed President Obama in 2014 for “politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies.” They described the restrictions as “a form of censorship -- an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.”
Unfortunately, we can’t know for sure if any gag orders are currently in place because there have been no public statements from the White House and the agencies haven’t released the memos. We only have leaked information to go on.
If true, these across-the-board efforts to prevent government employees from communicating with Congress and the public could represent a serious threat to public health and safety.
Consider the CDC, which issues alerts on disease outbreaks, food safety, and health concerns for travelers. It recently announced a multi-state outbreak of the Seoul virus. Is the CDC currently blocked from issuing public notices?
What if there’s a deadly flu outbreak, or something worse? What about FDA warnings on dangerous drugs and medical devices?
The short answer is: We don’t know.
What we do know is that blanket bans on communication may be illegal. The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012 contains an anti-gag provision stating that agencies may not create policies that restrict employees’ right to report waste, fraud, and abuse especially to Congress or Inspectors General. The HHS policy would cover communications with Congress and so would clearly violate this provision. Other agencies’ bans on media communication could also run afoul of this requirement as whistleblowing to the media is also protected. All policies impacting employees’ communication rights must include a clear exception explaining that the policy does not cover whistleblower reporting or been seen as violating the law.
New communication policies should be issued in the light of day and carefully crafted to acknowledge the vital information agencies provide and comply with legal requirements. Blanket bans on communication with Congress or the public are crude, clumsy policies that threaten to keep us all in the dark.
About the authors:
Sean Moulton is the Open Government Program Manager at POGO and oversees the effort to develop a “blueprint” the next president can use to build a more open and accountable administration.
Emily Manna is a policy associate at OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of 90+ organizations dedicated to government transparency and accountability.