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The federal government is about as transparent as gumbo on a cloudy day.

It seems like no matter when a member of the public or media asks a question, the federal government stalls, delays or hides behind a fortress of policies.

Elected officials on both sides of the political spectrum tout the need for accessibility and accountability, but when it comes right down to it, nothing happens to make the situation better.

We suppose until voters are willing to hold our elected officials accountable for making substantive changes, nothing will make the federal system more transparent.

Part of the problem is that we little gnats in places like Montana can be easily ignored. If we throw a fit, Washington D.C., doesn't flinch.

But, a recent series by The Billings Gazette showed that law enforcement officers who are involved in fatal shootings aren't just a problem for local and county agencies, but it also affects federal agents here, too.

Reporter Sam Wilson chronicled two cases in which the public remains completely in the dark about the shootings.

The two cases -- Clay Spotted Bear and Ruben Stewart -- have had virtually no information released. In both cases, the United States Attorney in Montana has declined to prosecute or release information about the cases. And yet, that same office has refused to release information regarding their deaths or why there's insufficient evidence to pursue charges.

Sorry to put it bluntly, but Spotted Bear and Stewart remain no less dead just because their deaths are shrouded by the secrecy of the federal government, namely the FBI and the U.S. Attorney.

Spotted Bear was killed by tribal police in 2014 on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Today, five years later, no information has been released about the circumstances.

Ruben Stewart was killed near the entrance of the Crow Reservation in 2018. More than a year later, details are scant in that case.

Even a lawyer representing the families in both cases has not been able to obtain information about the deaths. The Bureau of Indian Affairs cites an "ongoing investigation" but will give no information about the nature of the timeline or what kind of investigation is happening.

The Billings Gazette has filed Freedom of Information requests in these cases, too. And like the families who want justice and answers, our requests remain unfulfilled. 

It's another case of the federal government touting the importance of transparency and not living up to its words.

We contacted the U.S. Attorney's Office and wanted to ask more questions about why the office declined to prosecute agents for the deaths. Originally, we were told the office's policy is not to comment on past or current cases.

In a follow-up email, a spokesperson said that the Department of Justice decided not to prosecute the cases because it could not prove a federal crime had been committed.

Information like that, and the refusal to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests, leaves citizens wondering about what kind of steps and details the U.S. Attorney considered and why they seem unable to prosecute.

When pressed, the answer hides behind policy and that policy makes it impossible for residents to truly have enough answers to hold federal officials accountable. In other words, the U.S. Attorney's Office seems to be aiding another federal agency in avoiding scrutiny by not releasing information.

The only way to obtain information would seem to be waging a costly public records battle with an uncertain outcome and very protracted timeline.

For this editorial, The Gazette contacted Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines.

Both spoke of the need for accountability and transparency, and yet neither committed to anything specific that would help ensure that.

In other words, there was a lot of pretty talk, but precious little in the way of action. 

The bottom line is that citizens cannot hold their government officials accountable if they're kept in the dark. Cynics might argue that's exactly what's at play here.

Instead, we think the bureaucracy of a federal system that prizes policy over transparency has made it impossible for citizens to truly hold federal officers accountable when it comes to deaths.

Federal officials wring their hands when it comes to protecting the integrity of investigations or due process under the law. We wouldn't pooh-pooh these, but we can't help but wonder: If local and state law enforcement can preserve investigations and the rights of the accused, and still release information, what makes it so hard for the federal government to do the same?

We believe that justice is being doubly denied to citizens living on the reservation who fall under the jurisdiction of the federal law enforcement agencies. Not only do many horrible crimes get committed there, but when it comes to getting answers, the same people charged with protecting them get to remain silent, using policy as a shield to hide behind rather than using it as a means of justice. 

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