By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a last-minute act before skipping out on a five-week vacation, the Congress on Thursday temporarily spared thousands of top military officers and civilian government officials from having their financial assets publicly posted -- and exposed to hackers and spies.
Had both the House and Senate not acted before leaving town, the financial disclosures for the military and executive branch officials from the Pentagon to the State and Treasury departments would have been posted to agency websites by August 31, thanks to Congress' own inadvertent handiwork.
The public posting plan, which also was to include a convenient searchable database that could be used by identity thieves and foreign intelligence services alike, was part of legislation enacted in April to deter insider trading by members of Congress.
The provision of the so-called STOCK Act was aimed at spreading some disclosure pain to the Obama administration by requiring the posting of data for 28,000 executive-branch officials. The annual financial disclosures include assets such as bank accounts, stock and mutual fund holdings, investment properties, major non-mortgage debts and sales and purchases of these assets.
However, it later emerged that this treasure trove of information could pose a national security risk.
"What a bonanza for domestic and foreign criminal groups, terrorist organizations and foreign intelligence services intent on harming U.S. national security officials," said John Bellinger, a former State Department and White House legal adviser.
"With the anonymous click of a button, they can know which executive branch officials have the most assets or the greatest debts," said Bellinger, now a national security lawyer with Arnold & Porter LLP in Washington. "Foreign intelligence services spend billions to try to find out who's vulnerable to influence, and this would lay it all out for them."
U.S. officials posted in foreign countries could be put at risk of kidnappings, he added.
On Friday, both the House and Senate by voice vote and with no debate, passed a measure to delay the effective date for posting any executive branch disclosures until September 30. The stop-gap will be sent to President Barack Obama to be signed into law.
Congress returns from its break on September 10 and can make further changes at that time before any information gets posted.
Bellinger and a group of other former U.S. national security officials had been pressing Congress for a full exemption for any executive branch official with a security clearance.
(Editing by Fred Barbash and Sandra Maler)