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Government Keeps More Secrets, Longer

The federal government set a new record for creating classified secrets in 2004, according to a new report from OpenTheGovernment.org, an organization devoted to reducing government secrecy. Federal employees chose to classify information 15.6 million times last year - 10 percent more than the previous year.

They also are keeping information secret longer: Two-thirds of the time, federal employees said the information should be kept secret for 10 years or more.

At the same time, the flow of old secrets to the public dropped to its lowest point in nearly a decade:  28 million pages in 2004. OpenTheGovernment.org noted that at this rate, the federal bureaucracy is falling further and further behind in its designated goals for making old classified information public.

Declassification has dropped 72 percent since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 - from just over 100 million pages to just 28.4 million pages in 2004. That’s the lowest number since 1994, when government agencies began automatically releasing documents classified for 25 years or more.

According to the report, the late 1990s seem to have been the heyday for reducing government secrecy. Only in the years 1995 to 1999 did the numbers of pages government secrets DECLASSIFIED exceed the number of pages of NEW classified documents.

The 2004 data came from the National Archives’ Information Security Oversight Office and can be viewed online. For a quick summary, see the OpenTheGovernment.org press release.

Posted 04-07-2005 11:20 AM EDT

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U.S. Secrecy Policy Challenged on Two Fronts

Two aspects of U.S. government secrecy are being subjected to new challenges - one by the American Civil Liberties Union, and the other by a group of Democratic senators. Each is tackling a part of the U.S. secrecy regime installed as a response to Sept. 11, 2001.

According to a report by the Inter-Press Service, the ACLU has filed a freedom of information (FOIA) request for records on the government’s practice of stopping scholars and others from entering the United States because of their political views. An ACLU attorney, Jameel Jaffer, said that while the USA Patriot Act permits the government to exclude foreign scholars who encourage terrorism, in fact the government is excluding people “simply because it disagrees with what they have to say.”

For example, Dora Maria Tellez, a leader of the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and later an elected Nicaraguan official, was forced to abandon a teaching position at Harvard after the U.S. government refused her a visa.

The ACLU’s FOIA request is aimed at the State Department, the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the CIA. It requests the names, nationalities and professions of those who have been excluded under the Patriot Act. Parts of the Patriot Act expire at the end of 2005, and the Bush administration wants Congress to re-enact the law in its entirety.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, four senior Democratic senators - Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Carl Levin of Michigan, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut - introduced the “Restore FOIA Act” to roll back some of the secrecy excesses of the Homeland Security Act of 2002.

The senators are focusing on the part of that law that creates a FOIA exemption for what it calls “critical infrastructure information” about power plants, bridges, dams, chemical plants and the like. The idea was that the exemption would encourage the owners of such facilities would be willing to share information about vulnerabilities if they knew that information would not fall into the hands of terrorists.

But, Leahy said in a statement introducing the bill that the legislation is too broad. It “shields the companies from lawsuits to compel disclosure, criminalizes otherwise legitimate whisteblower activity by Department of Homeland Security employees, and preempts any state or local disclosure laws.”

The proposed legislation would expand the public’s right to know about infrastructure problems while still protecting essential security secrets about infrastructure submitted by the private sector.

Posted 04-01-2005 2:49 PM EDT

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Public Citizen Slams NRC Proposal for More Secrecy

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is proposing to further reduce public access to information about nuclear safety, but Public Citizen has filed formal comments asking the NRC to withdraw its unwarranted new secrecy regulations. Public Citizen strongly objects to the agency's proposal to revise its regulations governing the protection of so-called "Safeguards Information." Access to that information is restricted to people who have undergone extensive background checks and demonstrated a "need to know" the information.

Public Citizen says the new rules go far beyond the "minimum restrictions needed to protect the health and safety of the public or the common defense and security," as required by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the law that established the Safeguards category. Public Citizen’s press release on the matter and full comments to the NRC are both available online.

"Rather than applying the 'minimum restrictions needed' requirement, the commission is attempting to expand the category of Safeguards Information to encompass virtually anything it wants - including information important to the public such as engineering and safety analyses, emergency planning procedures and inspection reports on nuclear facilities," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. "This is an unacceptable information blackout that will leave the public in the dark about the competency of the nuclear industry and the NRC."

The NRC's proposed rule would improperly restrict the public's access to important information that has proved useful in the past, the organization says. For example, using information obtained from the NRC about nuclear facilities' security capabilities, citizen groups in the early 1990s successfully pressured the agency to adopt higher standards for the protection of nuclear facilities, incorporating the possibility of adversaries using truck bombs.

The proposed rule comes at a time when the NRC is under fire for its use of the Safeguards classification to conceal industry vulnerabilities. U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) recently said in a letter to the NRC's inspector general that the suppression of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study about the security vulnerabilities of the pools in which reactor operators store irradiated nuclear fuel may be "based on the fact that it disagrees with the NAS' conclusions, not on any legitimate security concerns."

The NRC-NAS disagreement centers on whether it is safe enough to store spent nuclear fuel rods in large pools of water, or whether that highly radioactive spent fuel should be transferred to dry storage, which is probably safer but which would be more expensive.

The Washington Post, in a March 28 article, quotes NAS officials making the point that NRC Chairman Nils Diaz is misleading Congress about the Academy’s conclusions. E. William Colglazier, NAS executive director, warned that "if someone only reads the NRC report, they would not get a full picture of what we had to say."

Colglazier told the Post that the National Academy of Sciences has produced many classified reports but had never encountered such hurdles in creating a public version.

Posted 03-29-2005 5:53 PM EDT

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Whistleblower Protection Unit Under Attack

The Office of Special Counsel - the federal office that is supposed to protect government whistleblowers - is being systematically weakened by its own politically motivated director. In response, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a watchdog organization, has organized a campaign to stop this negative crackdown and support freedom of information in the federal government.

The dismantling of whistleblower protection was exposed in a press alert by POGO, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Government Accountability Project.

National Public Radio
covered the story March 9, and it can be heard online. As NPR points out, it’s ironic that the office that was supposed to protect whistleblowers now needs protection itself.

The purpose of the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is to enforce the Whistleblower Protection Act, so that if someone reveals abuses, say, at the Defense Department, they won’t be disciplined for speaking out. But Special Counsel Scott Bloch has placed a gag order on OSC staff and "purged" 12 senior staffers. The press alert reveals that OSC is "now scrambling to shrink its workload further, enlisting summer interns to dismiss cases."

POGO asked supporters of open government to come to its online Action Center to urge Congress to investigate OSC’s anti-whistleblower activities.

 

 

Posted 03-18-2005 1:48 PM EDT

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Poll: Americans STILL Don't Like Government Secrecy

Despite 9/11 and the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, seven of 10 Americans are still worried about excessive government secrecy, according to an Associated Press report.

A poll conducted in early March for a coalition of media groups and others concerned about government secrecy showed that more than half of Americans feel the government should provide more access to its records. Even more said they were "concerned" or "very concerned" about government secrecy.

The poll results surprised some secrecy experts, who expected that Americans might have become more tolerant of government secrecy since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Instead, attitudes have not changed much since a similar poll conducted in February 2000.

Among the poll’s findings: 52 percent of 1,003 respondents said there is too little access to government information, 36 percent said access is "just about right," and 6 percent said there is too much.

 

 

Posted 03-16-2005 4:25 PM EDT

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