Why is the TPP Deal Such a Big Secret?

With the text of Trans-Pacific Partnership hidden from the public, TRNN’s Jessica Desvarieux speaks to those who have read the document and who say this level of secrecy is unprecedented

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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: The text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, has become one of the biggest secrets in Washington. This international treaty includes 12 countries and represents more than 40 percent of the world’s GDP. But the text is not available to the public, and what the public does know about the deal comes from three leaked chapters sent to WikiLeaks. And now the website is looking to raise $100,000 towards a cash reward to anyone willing to reveal the rest of the 26 chapters of the TPP.

Critics of the Obama administration’s TPP deal say that the level of secrecy surrounding the deal should make citizens question in whose interest is this deal, anyway?

CELESTE DRAKE, TRADE POLICY SPECIALIST, AFL-CIO: You know, you’re putting forth rules that have most of the power to corporations and very little power to people, and very few protections for the planet. They’re right that people aren’t going to like that. So if this forces, if being transparent forces different kind of rules, that’s the conversation we want to have.

DESVARIEUX: We spoke to Celeste Drake, who is a trade policy specialist with the union AFL-CIO. She’s read the entire deal and was a part of a labor advisory committee designed to guide the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, or USTR, during negotiations.

She was even hesitant to speak too much about the text, because talking about it in detail could end up getting her arrested.

DRAKE: Now, I don’t know that they’ve ever arrested and prosecuted somebody for revealing things that are happening in a trade negotiation. But I don’t think that anyone wants to test it, either.

But we do have very serious issues with the fact that trade agreements are treated in the same way as national security. This really isn’t about troop movements, it’s not about any kind of military strategy. And frankly once the U.S. has put its text on the table that says this is what we want for the intellectual property chapter, or this is what we want from the environment chapter, the need for secrecy is gone. Because in negotiations you keep it secret from the party that you’re negotiating with. And once they have it, there’s no more advantage to keeping it secret.

DESVARIEUX: But who else has been able to see this deal? The USTR released names of about 600 trade advisors who have access to the text. Eighty-five percent of these advisors represent trade associations and corporations. The rest of the groups, like labor, are clearly in the minority. Members of Congress like Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro has come out strongly against the secrecy around the TPP. Congress can only read one section at a time in a secret location in the Capitol’s basement, and they are forbidden from taking notes, and only staff with special clearance can see the text.

DeLauro says getting information out to the public has been an uphill battle.

REP. ROSE DELAURO (D-CT): And it’s taken us a very, very long time to get, to be able to see, to see, three or four chapters of this agreement. We have been unable to do that for months and months and months.

DESVARIEUX: As of April, only 43 members of Congress had actually asked to see the text, according to the Hill. President Obama stands by his assertion that the text is available, and that there is no secret deal.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You got some critics saying that any deal would be rushed through. It’s a secret deal. People don’t know what’s in it. This is not true. Any agreement that we finalize with the other 11 countries will have to be posted online for at least 60 days before I even sign it. Then it would go to Congress, and you know they’re not going to do anything fast.

DESVARIEUX: But critics say that once fast-track is passed the TPP is pretty much a done deal because it guarantees that Congress cannot amend or filibuster a deal, meaning the final deal will simply get an up or down vote. So the logic goes that if the Obama administration can get enough votes to pass fast-track they’ll get enough votes for the agreement, and history has proven that to be true.

It happened with the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement under President Reagan, with NAFTA under President Clinton, and CAFTA under President George W. Bush, in addition to many others.

DELAURO: What we’re asking on fast-track is that we allow there to be congressional input into the process of the negotiations. That’s what we’re asking for, and that has not happened.

DESVARIEUX: But is this level of secrecy around a trade agreement really unprecedented?

DAMON SILVERS, DIR. OF POLICY, AFL-CIO: [Inaud.] have been personally involved in trade negotiations for the last 20 years or so are universally of the opinion that this is the most secretive process that they’ve ever experienced.

DESVARIEUX: Damon Silvers is a director of policy and special counsel for AFL-CIO. He said the NAFTA text under President Clinton was made public. In a Politico magazine article, longtime trade advisor for trade deals Michael Wessel says this is the most restrictive trade negotiation process he’s ever encountered.

Being that this deal is supposed to be about trade, not only are cleared advisors restricted from seeing partner countries’ counter-proposals, they also cannot access the documents unless under the watchful eye of a USTR official. He wrote, “We have to travel to certain government facilities and sign in to read the materials. Even then, the administration determines what we can and cannot review, and often they provide carefully edited summaries rather than the actual underlying text, which is critical to really understanding the consequences of the agreement.”

AFL-CIO trade specialist Celeste Drake agrees, and says that the Obama administration may be hesitant to release the full text because recent trade deals that were released have not done well in the public eye.

DRAKE: Under the Bush administration when the former USTR Robert Zoellick said let’s be totally transparent, let’s publish the actual working text of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas online. And people will see what we’re doing and they won’t be as afraid of it being behind closed doors. And then, subsequent to that negotiations fell apart. So maybe the wrong lesson was learned in that if you’re public about what you’re doing, you can’t do trade.

I think–you know, to some extent if you’re public about what you’re doing and what you’re doing is not good for the public, that’s the right answer.

DESVARIEUX: But the Obama administration and the Republican leadership want to make sure that the TPP doesn’t face a similar fate. On Thursday a super PAC affiliated with Republican leadership, American Action Network, announced it will be launching a $1 million ad campaign to sway constituents.

But those on the other side are launching their own campaign by banging on the doors of the USTR, demanding that the text be released to the public. Since fast-track already passed in the Senate, protesters say they will be ramping up pressure ahead of a vote in the House. Because as they see it, a secret trade deal this big cannot just rise and set with policy-makers and lobbyists in Washington.

For The Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.

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