Last night, the Washington Post reported that FEMA had removed from its website information on access to drinking water and electricity in Puerto Rico, even as it maintained other metrics suggesting improvement in the situation on the ground there. FEMA offered no serious explanation for the selective removal.
Despite President Trump’s reference to FEMA and others assisting in relief as “my people,” recent history has taught us that there is no more important agency to be free from political interference than FEMA, which is in charge of disaster response. If the public doesn’t know the truth about what is happening in the aftermath of a disaster, we cannot assist in the response or hold our government accountable if it is failing us. While we should be cautious not to jump to conclusions, the manipulation or censorship of government information to reflect well on those in power (Trump has called the Puerto Rico response “incredible” and “unbelievable”) at the expense of objective truth about the circumstances of its citizens is a hallmark of regimes that slide away from democracy and into a modern form of authoritarianism. Anti-democratic regimes thrive on the efforts of those in power to hide reality from the public, leading to a willingness of the public to gradually, day-by-day, accept a new normal.
We formed Protect Democracy precisely to prevent that from happening here.
So today, we’re launching an investigation into what happened to the FEMA data. Our investigation will start with three steps. First, we’ve written to the Administrator of FEMA demanding they restore the removed information, and have sent copies of this letter to the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General, and the relevant Congressional oversight Committees. Second, we’ve filed freedom of information requests with FEMA, the broader Department of Homeland Security (of which FEMA is a part), and the White House Office of Management and Budget for any communications with the White House or other agencies, or any internal FEMA documents, related to the data removal so we can get to bottom of what happened. And third, we’re partnering with Whistleblower Aid to be able to assist any federal employees who witnessed any illegal or improper acts that might ultimately lead to less pressure on the federal government, less aid, and more suffering and deaths of American citizens.
In protecting our democracy, one of our core areas of focus is what one White House senior advisor aptly and famously called “alternative facts.” Americans need to know the actual facts about the life-and-death circumstances of our fellow citizens. If we cannot count on that, our democracy is slipping away in ways we may never even know.