A Rebuttal on Transparency From the Treasury

A recent post at The Atlantic questioned whether the Treasury as been adequately transparent. We would like to set the record straight.

The Treasury Department has made a significant effort to ensure that taxpayers are well-informed about the work we conduct on their behalf here at our agency. We provide thousands of documents to the public every year through our Office of Public Affairs, as well as under the Freedom of Information Act.

We proactively publish hundreds of reports on the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) alone, including an exhaustive compendium of every single TARP transaction involving the use of taxpayer dollars. We also regularly post information regarding our borrowing plans; the performance of our foreclosure prevention program Marking Home Affordable; the speeches and activities of top agency officials; our holdings of international currency; foreign holdings of Treasury debt; Secretary Geithner's calendar, and numerous other issues.

Transparency, however, is also about striking a balance. The public has a critical right to know about the operations of its government. But we also need to ensure that federal agencies and their private partners can continue to freely and candidly work together in the public interest. That's not always an easy balance to strike, particularly at Treasury, where our words and actions can have a dramatic impact on global financial markets.  But we do our sincere best to achieve it.

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Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), some information simply cannot be released. For example, we do not disclose classified documents that, if revealed, could damage our national security.

Private businesses that work with the government also have the right, under FOIA, to object to the release of trade secrets (such as patents or business strategies) that, if made public, could hurt their competitiveness; or personal information that would represent an unwarranted invasion of their employees' privacy.  Without those provisions in FOIA, it would be much more difficult to find qualified companies willing to work with federal agencies.

With that as background, I'd like to address the particular issues cited in yesterday's post.

First, we do not believe that it is fair to say that Treasury has "made a tremendous effort to release as little information as possible about it financial stability programs." Especially in light of the fact that we put hundreds of transaction reports, dividend and interest payment reports, Making Home Affordable reports, congressional reports, TARP contracts, and other documents on our FinancialStability.gov website for the American people to access.

There are some instances, however, when FOIA rules and guidelines, such as those relating to trade secrets and personal privacy, dictate that we do not release certain pieces of information. That was the case for the Bloomberg FOIA request that the post cited.

Treasury remains committed to making certain that the public is well-informed about its use of taxpayer dollars. But we also have to ensure that we do not jeopardize the effectiveness of our efforts to stabilize the financial system, safeguard the economic security of millions of American families, and make sure that taxpayers get paid back. 

Second, the Administration has previously responded at length to the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program's (SIGTARP) baseless claims on Treasury's AIG cost estimates, but an important point bears repeating.  SIGTARP never cast doubt on the validity of our AIG valuation or claimed that we were concealing losses, though that was how certain media outlets incorrectly reported it.

To the contrary, SIGTARP expressly noted that they were offering "no opinion on the appropriateness or accuracy of the valuation [in Treasury's report]." They also acknowledged that we disclosed our methodology for valuing our investment. Rather, we had a disagreement over whether our methodology for analyzing our AIG holdings had changed or whether, as Treasury believes, the improved prospects for repayment simply account for AIG's recently announced restructuring plan. SIGTARP did not reject the validity of our claim that, based on current market prices, taxpayers stand to make a substantial profit on their investment in AIG.

Third, yesterday's post incorrectly attributed to Treasury an independent analysis that Bloomberg News conducted of our Public Private Investment Program (PPIP). Earlier this month, on page 7 of a broader Treasury report on PPIP, we outlined the performance to date of individual PPIP investment funds, showing that their returns ranged from 19 percent to 52 percent. This is certainly good news for taxpayers, but we appropriately cautioned in the report that we are still in the early stages of the program and that more information will be needed before we can draw definitive conclusions. Moreover, nowhere in that report did we put forward an unweighted average of returns.  That was an analysis conducted by Bloomberg, not Treasury.

We appreciate the opportunity to respond. An open public dialogue is an important part of government transparency. And that is a goal to which Treasury continues to remain committed.