Break open tons of government documents. Distill them into nuggets of understandable data. Serve in neatly-packaged reports.
That is the recipe TRAC — or Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse — has followed for 23 years to give the public a chance to see how their federal government works.
“It’s a tool for the whole country. You will see a lot of reporters, public interest groups, lawyers and the government itself using our databases,” said David Burnham, co-director of TRAC, a non-partisan data research center at Syracuse University. Burnham is a former award-winning New York Times investigative reporter who covered law-enforcement issues for thirty years
TRAC is the brainchild of Burnham and Susan Long, a statistician and professor at Syracuse University. It occupies a corner of the third floor of a building of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Inside the corner room, staff members and volunteers sift through files, peck at keyboards to gather, analyze and publish their findings. The data clearinghouse receives support and funding from the university, from subscribers and from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a Miami-based journalism foundation.
TRAC has persistently pestered the federal government to release documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Sometimes TRACE researchers easily get the information. More often, they have to fight bureaucratic red tape, reluctance or outright refusal. Sometimes they have to take the government to court to force the release of the information.
Their persistence has earned co-directors Long and Burnham membership in the National Freedom of Information Act Hall of Fame. In March, Long received the 2012 Robert Vaughn FOIA Legend Award in recognition of more than four decades of successful requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
By law, government information must be requested, so volunteers and workers at TRAC file “quite a series” of monthly or quarterly requests, Long said.
Among the fruits of those requests in TRAC’s reports:
- In 1997, the website uploaded 23,000 pages of materials on the FBI for an analysis that teamed Burnham with The Nation magazine. A summary paragraph called the FBI a “badly managed, uncooperative and out-of-touch agency,” a conclusion the 9/11 Commission would come to four years later.
- In 2003 and again in 2006, special reports revealed a wide disparity between thousands of terrorism-related arrests and the relatively small percentage ultimately charged with international terrorism by the Justice Department.
- In 2012, TRAC published the immigration enforcement numbers released by a Homeland Security agency that contradicted the agency’s own data. TRAC has been in a legal battle over those numbers with the agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for more than two years.
- As of early April 2012, TRAC was expecting to release findings from its ongoing FOIA Project, a scorecard for which federal agencies and districts improperly withhold public information.
Those reports and data organized by the research center are open to the public and are routinely cited in news and government reports.
The clearinghouse is doing journalism in a way that avoids a lot of the problems of contemporary journalism, said David Rubin, now a professor at the Newhouse School. TRAC was a fledgling operation when he became dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in July 1990. “Nobody’s doing anything like it,” Rubin said, “this regular use of FOIA for a ton of data.”
Rubin sees two major benefits to journalism in TRAC’s work. Instead of just asking for official questions of government agencies and taking them at their word, TRAC enables journalists to present gathered data and asks officials respond to it. The compiled reports and adjustable databases empower journalists to localize federal data that affect their readers, he said.
Shortly after TRAC released its 2006 findings of disparity among federal judicial rulings in amnesty cases, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales released a list of 22 improvements to their process and added clerks and judges in some districts. The government never cited TRAC’s data for inspiring the change and conducted its own, similar research. Co-director Burnham stresses he has no direct evidence, but he suspects TRAC’s report provoked the government’s self-evaluation and changes.
A new area of oversight is the FOIA Project, TRAC’s attempt to shine light on the lawsuits filed against the government over open records requests
“TRAC gets information primarily through the Freedom of Information Act and there are lots of difficulties in doing that. A principle one is that there are no sanctions in the law,” co-director Long said. “So there’s really no reason for a government bureaucrat to pay any attention to it.”
Under the law, the government must release information and provide reasons for any exemptions. The government and Freedom of Information advocates often disagree about qualified exemptions. Those disagreements often lead to lawsuits.
Since 2009, The FOIA Project has tracked more than 800 public information lawsuits filed against the government. TRAC is waiting to gather information on more cases before it mines the data to look for patterns. Security agencies have more sensitive information, which is exempt from FOIA law. But the problem of information improperly withheld spans all government agencies, Long said.
The names of plaintiffs, government agencies and types of requests have been entered into TRAC’S database, awaiting a critical mass that would make analysis statistically valid, Long said. The eventual report is aimed at generating public awareness and achieving a stated goal on the project’s website: “To shame those who violate the FOIA.”
Otherwise, said co-director Burnham, “It’s virtually impossible to whack the knuckles of any agency that doesn’t comply.”
(M. T. Elliott is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)