Lewis, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was skeptical that online financial postings would notably increase the risk of crime for diplomats who were already visibly wealthy and deployed in foreign countries. He also disputed the notion that online postings would be a boon to foreign intelligence services. “For 40 bucks you can buy all that info from a credit service,” Lewis said.

The report also cites risks to law enforcement, intelligence, and undercover personnel, such as facilitating the profiling of American intelligence officers by foreign state actors.

Lewis said there are sensitive posts that may merit an exemption from disclosure. But he said that such jobs constituted a small and easily distinguished fraction of the 28,000-odd executive branch and legislative staffers now being exempted from online disclosure.

“For 95% of the cases, exempting these people is a mistake,” Lewis said.

Another concern raised in the report is that the creation of a searchable public database would place everyone included at a higher level of risk for outcomes ranging from blackmail to harassment to identity theft. It offered the analogy of “boiling the frog” in gradually warming water, warning that “this forthcoming increment in available data could become the fatal temperature change that goes undetected by the hapless frog.”

“Making this information available in this fashion fundamentally transforms the ability (and the likelihood) of others—individuals, organizations, nation-states—to exploit that information for criminal, intelligence, and other purposes,” the report found.

Hammersley of The Brookings Institution was unconvinced. “Is it that there’s a whole generation of slightly lazy blackmailers?” he asked.

Without more plausible specifics, he said, the report was offering a “slippery slope” argument that could be applied equally well to any type of disclosure rule. “When I see a slippery slope argument it always makes me suspicious of the motivations of the people who are making it,” Hammersley said. “Because it means there are actually no arguments against the thing they actually talking about.”

In the case of the STOCK Act’s disclosure rules, that may not quite be true. There would have been some hassle and burden for government employees in complying with the measures. No doubt many federal workers also felt the public financial disclosures would be an invasion of their privacy, one that they hadn’t consented to when embarking on those careers. Those claims are worth listening to—and they should be weighed in a debate against specific arguments for the benefit of disclosure in this case, rather than vague statements about the virtues of transparency.

Had reporters dug deeper here, they might have forced a debate on the actual merits of repeal—and in the process generated a bit more attention to Congress’s swift and silent rollback of ethics rules based on implausible claims of a security threat.

 

Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin.