Marc Caputo: Signs of a secrecy-obsessed, unaccountable government

06/02/2013 5:24 PM

06/02/2013 7:53 PM

Four black youths sat in the middle of the street as police swarmed around them.

I went to take a picture from the sidewalk. An officer said I couldn’t.

“I’m a reporter with The Miami Herald,” I said.

The response, delivered by a U.S. marshal: “Get the f--- outta here.”

Wow.

If there’s a slogan for how some in the federal government sometimes view the press and the public, it’s that: Get the [expletive] out of here.

After being sworn at, I insisted on remaining and started shooting video. But neither that marshal nor another would give his name as we exchanged not-so-friendly words.

Ostensibly, the dispute looks like a case of over-policing Miami Beach’s Memorial Day weekend. (In a separate caught-on-camera moment, Miami-Dade police cuffed and applied a choke-hold to a black 14-year-old, whose resisting-arrest charge came after officers said he looked threatening and gave them, according to CBS4, “dehumanizing stares.”)

On another level, the confrontation between police and press is a window into a secrecy-obsessed, unaccountable government. It’s particularly common in the federal system, and not just with the U.S. Marshals Service.

The Marshals Service’s parent agency, the U.S. Department of Justice, has seized phone records of more than 100 staffers at the Associated Press. DOJ also accused a Fox News reporter of essentially being a spy, and went so far as to obtain his parents’ phone records.

To explain himself, Attorney General Eric Holder offered an off-the-record meeting with some media organizations. Some declined the invitation, only to have a Democratic National Committee spokesman say this on Twitter to the press: “Kind of forfeits your right to gripe.”

Translation: Get the expletive outta here.

The targeting of reporters under President Barack Obama’s administration is part of its war on whistleblowers and leakers. Six people have been indicted for allegedly leaking information to the press. That’s twice as many prosecutions as all previous administrations combined.

The administration says it’s all about national security. But it’s also about hoarding information. And, yes, it happened under President George W. Bush and his predecessors.

Reporters aren’t the only ones being stiff-armed or targeted by the administration.

The Justice Department, acting as the Department of Homeland Security’s legal counsel, repeatedly denied the state of Florida’s lawful request to access a federal database to help find unlawful noncitizen voters on its rolls before the 2012 election.

Florida invented a work-around using a different database, but produced a flawed list that had high false positives as a result.

Rather than help, the Department of Justice sued Florida for the state’s sloppy purge of suspected noncitizens — an effort that became more of a mess due to the federal government’s resistance in the first place.

Florida countersued DHS for the immigrant database and beat the Justice Department in court. The embarrassing failure didn’t dim the political prospects of the Justice Department official who oversaw the failed lawsuit against Florida, Thomas E. Perez. Obama wants him to be the new Secretary of Labor.

After losing in court, DHS finally gave the state access to the database, but tried to tell Florida and the press that the identities of suspected noncitizens weren’t public record.

“This is confidential information,” a DHS official told a Miami Herald reporter — on condition of anonymity, of course.

If you’re a target of the federal government, it’s even tougher to get a straight answer.

Ask the tea party and conservative groups the Internal Revenue Service improperly targeted when they applied to for tax-exempt nonprofit status.

“Many organizations waited much longer than 13 months for a decision,” an inspector general’s report last month said, “while others have yet to receive a decision from the IRS.”

The IRS also makes victims of tax ID fraud wait. The IRS tells them little, delays refunds and makes it all but impossible to get anyone on the telephone.

Congress, too, has been stymied by the IRS, and the Justice and State departments. But it’s tough to have a sympathetic view of the opaque lawmaking body that passes laws riddled with secret amendments from authors unknown.

It should be said there are hard-working and responsive federal employees, including the Marshals Service.

The day after I clashed with the two marshals, spokesman Barry Golden answered his cellphone — on a Sunday. He was civil. But we had to agree to disagree.

What was the name of the officer who swore at me? Golden wouldn’t say.

How about the badge-heavy officer, who wouldn’t give his identity either as he shined a light in my video camera while telling me to leave? Golden wouldn’t say.

But Golden did say he believed I was too close to the potential crime scene. And he took a measure of umbrage from my comment that the agency and officer, funded by taxpayers, isn’t responsive to taxpayers.

“We pay taxes, too,” Golden said.

As for the nature of the crime the marshals were investigating, Golden referred me to Miami Beach police, who controlled all the disparate law enforcement agencies called in to help out with the weekend.

Turns out, the four black youths forced to the ground in the middle of the street were completely innocent on that Saturday night. They just happened to walk by the wrong suspicious car at the wrong time.

But anywhere can be the wrong place if the government deems it so. The feds will still say you have rights — like the right to remain silent, the right to little information and the right to “get the [expletive] outta here.”

About Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo

@MarcACaputo

Marc Caputo is the Miami Herald's political writer. Hailing from Key West, he graduated from the University of Miami.

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