By BRIAN TUMULTY
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - A law that requires the personal financial information of 28,000 federal workers to be posted online beginning April 15 poses a national security risk and could violate the workers' privacy, a new report says.
The report by the National Academy of Public Administration recommends that Congress indefinitely suspend the requirement.
"Transparency does not necessarily equate to unrestricted accessibility when it comes to thousands of federal employees' sensitive financial information,'' the report concludes. "Given the potential risks in the evolving online environment, considerations must be made for balancing transparency and privacy needs appropriately and in a way that does not expose federal employees to unnecessary risk.''
Under the STOCK Act (for Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge) enacted last year, the annual personal financial disclosure reports filed by the 28,000 federal workers must be posted online by their agencies. The workers also must report financial transactions of more than $1,000, and the agencies must post that information.
By October, the online data is required to be available for searching, sorting and downloading.
The State Department, Defense Department, FBI and other agencies have said releasing such information threatens the privacy of employees who already must file personal financial information annually - under the 1978 Ethics in Government Act - to guard against conflicts of interest.
The STOCK Act requirement covers senior executive service employees and federal workers in equivalent positions that are above the GS-15 civil service grade.
Cybersecurity experts believe a searchable database of government workers' finances could allow enemies of the U.S. "to develop powerful profiles of individuals and organizations'' and "repurpose and capitalize on it,'' the national academy's report said.
A letter to congressional leaders from former senior law enforcement, diplomatic and national security officials last summer said releasing the data "would be a jackpot for enemies of the United States intent on finding security vulnerabilities they can exploit.''
"We know of cases where we have reason to believe that a hostile foreign entity is attempting to build a database of U.S. government personnel, and their job titles, and locations,''
Defense Department Acting General Counsel Robert Taylor and Acting Under Secretary of Defense Jessica Wright wrote to a five-member review panel on the National Academy of Public Administration.
The online posting requirement affecting the federal workers was added to the STOCK Act as an amendment by Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. The law's main component requires members of Congress and their senior staffs to post personal financial disclosure statements and transactions above $1,000.
Shelby's amendment, passed 58-41, was designed to provide parity in the disclosure requirement for congressional and executive branch employees, according to spokesman Jonathan Graffeo.
"Those similarly situated should abide by the same transparency requirements, regardless of the branch of government in which they serve,'' Graffeo said in an email. "(Shelby) welcomes the report's recommendations to more carefully consider how the STOCK Act applies to everyone in government, and believes that we should take this opportunity to develop a disclosure system that promotes transparency in a consistent manner.''
President Barack Obama signed the STOCK Act into law last April.
Financial transactions by senators and House members already are posted on Senate and House web sites within 30 days, along with lawmakers' annual personal financial reports.
Congress has twice delayed the provision covering federal workers because of privacy concerns involving certain job categories such as embassy workers stationed overseas and senior law enforcement managers who might be subject to threats by foreign intelligence agencies or criminals.
Attorneys representing the federal Senior Executives Association and other groups of federal employees, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital, filed a federal lawsuit last year seeking to delay the requirement.
An attorney in that suit, Jack McKay, said Wednesday a new motion in the case seeks a preliminary injunction to prevent the April 15 posting of the data.
McKay said the National Academy of Public Administration report makes clear the online posting requirement is "totally unnecessary'' for executive branch workers whose finances already are subject to review.
But the report does recommend reviewing the 1978 ethics law to improve its efficiency and effectiveness.
Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said her organization agrees that improvements to the current system can be made without requiring sensitive personal financial information to be posted on the Internet.
"After 35 years, it doesn't hurt to take another look at it,'' she said.