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Justice Department Caves on Retroactively Classified Information

A hearing scheduled for the morning of Feb. 22 before U.S. District Judge John D. Bates in Washington was abruptly cancelled after the Justice Department gave up and admitted that the information it had retroactively classified could be released to the public.

Last June, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) sued then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) for retroactively classifying information related to whistleblower Sibel Edmonds' allegations of wrongdoing in an FBI translation unit. The suit alleged that the retroactive classification was unlawful and violated POGO's First Amendment right to free speech.

The information about Edmonds had already presented by the FBI to the Senate Judiciary Committee during two unclassified briefings in 2002. The information was referenced in letters from U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to DOJ officials. The senators' letters were posted on their Web sites but were removed after the FBI notified the Senate in May 2004 that the information had been retroactively classified

According to a Feb. 23 Washington Post article, a report by the Justice Department Inspector General found that the FBI "was lax in investigating [Edmonds’] complaints and fired her partly because she made them." Critics of the FBI have charged that the real reason for trying to classify the information about the whistle-blower is not that national security secrets are at stake, but rather to cover up sloppy work by the FBI.

During a June 2004 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Ashcroft defended the decision to retroactively classify the information, claiming that its further dissemination could seriously impair the national security interests of the United States, even though for more than two years the information was widely available to the public.

"The fact that the Justice Department gave up on the eve of the hearing shows that this information was classified for an improper purpose," said Danielle Brian, POGO's executive director. "If this information could ever have harmed national security, the Justice Department would never have caved in."

Throughout the litigation, POGO had offered to dismiss the suit if the DOJ stated that POGO could discuss and disseminate the letters without fear of prosecution, but the agency refused and instead claimed that POGO lacked standing to maintain the suit because the threat of criminal sanctions did not injure POGO. The DOJ backed down when faced with the prospect of tough questions at the hearing by a federal judge.

POGO was represented in the case by lawyers from the Public Citizen Litigation Group and the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center.

Visit POGO’s Web site to look at the Department of Justice's letter reversing the retroactive classification and other legal documents from POGO vs. Ashcroft, or to examine the background of the case, including press coverage.

 

Posted 02-23-2005 1:05 PM EDT

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CIA Won't Disclose Files on Nazi War Criminals

Sixty years after the fall of Nazi Germany, the CIA is refusing to disclose to a government working group hundreds of thousands of pages that document how the U.S. government tried to recruit Nazi war criminals after World War II. The dispute was made public in a Jan. 30 New York Times article.

According to the 1998 Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, a specially appointed working group is supposed to make public "all classified Nazi war criminal records of the United States." But members of the working group have complained that the CIA has been interpreting the law so narrowly that hundreds of records are still secret. According to The Times, the CIA has been dragging its feet for about three years - that would make it shortly after the start of the Bush administration, wouldn’t it? Makes you wonder, who still has skeletons in that closet, and what can they be afraid of?

Records already made public show that the U.S. intelligence and military agencies worked closely with Nazi war criminals after the war, allowing dozens to live safely in the United States.

According to working group member Thomas H. Baer, a former federal prosecutor, "Too much has been secret for too long. The CIA has not complied with the statute." The working group includes representatives of several government agencies, as well as three non-governmental public members.

Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), one of the sponsors of the 1998 law, has asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold a public hearing on the matter, at which CIA officials and members of the working group will testify.

The Anti-Defamation League, an organization that combats anti-Semitism, urged the CIA Feb. 2 to release the documents.

Posted 02-03-2005 5:04 PM EDT

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Don’t Silence That Whistle-Blower!

The case of FBI whistle-blower Sibel Edmonds keeps getting more and more interesting. Edmonds, who was a contract translator for the FBI in Turkish, Farsi and Azerbaijani, was fired by the bureau when she raised questions about the competence of the FBI translation service and also accused a fellow translator of espionage.

Edmonds challenged her dismissal in court - saying it was a retaliatory firing because she was a whistle-blower who is protected by law from such retaliation. But Attorney General John Ashcroft invoked a seldom-used “state secrets privilege” to throw her case out of court because talking about it would allegedly endanger national security.

On Jan. 15,  the inspector general of the Department of Justice issued a highly critical report on the Edmonds affair, finding the FBI had in fact fired Edmonds for whistle-blowing and had failed to take seriously the espionage accusation.

Edmonds is appealing her case in federal court, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. Public Citizen recently filed an amicus curiae brief supporting Edmonds, along with several other anti-secrecy organizations. For more details on the case of the multi-lingual whistle-blower, see Public Citizen’s press release, read the text of the amicus brief, or read the New York Times coverage of the inspector general’s report.

Posted 01-21-2005 5:42 PM EDT

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Secrecy Policy Still Goes Too Far

The Department of Homeland Security discontinued its requirement that workers at the department sign a secrecy pledge prohibiting them from sharing sensitive but unclassified information with the public. According to the agreement, any information that could compromise the privacy of individuals or "adversely affect the national interest or conduct of federal programs" was considered sensitive, according to The New York Times.

Violators risked administrative, disciplinary, criminal and civil penalties. One provision required signers to consent to government inspections "at any time or place" to ensure compliance.

Within the next month, the department will begin computer-based training sessions for employees on handling sensitive information.

The secrecy pledge was met with wide criticism by civil liberties groups and two unions, all charging the pledge as overly broad, unworkable and an unconstitutional restriction of privacy and free speech.

The unions applauded the department's decision to change its policy, but said its revised plan for safeguarding sensitive information covered "a broad and vaguely defined universe of information." The unions also said the department's approach in managing employees may "undermine national security and the public interest by suppressing whistle-blowing and discouraging dissent."

Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, said department employees are still at risk of unfair disciplinary action.

"A government agency should never threaten its employees or contractors with criminal prosecution for disclosing information that is available under the Freedom of Information Act," Amey said in a written statement.

Posted 01-18-2005 4:13 PM EDT

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Auto Defects? What Auto Defects?

Four years ago, after the spate of Ford-Firestone rollover crashes that resulted from defective tires, Congress passed a law that required certain safety data to be gathered by the government and made available to the public. The purpose of the law was to give the public access to information collected about the vehicles they drive.

But to the delight of the auto industry, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has decided to conceal much of this critical information from the public. NHTSA is withholding warranty claims, production numbers, field reports and even consumer complaints.

Auto manufacturers too often hide safety defects to avoid the costs of recalling vehicles and say they are against making the information public because they would suffer competitive harm. This situation puts the public at risk, according to a statement released by Public Citizen. In a legal brief filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the group contended NHTSA's secrecy is a perversion of the Freedom of Information Act.

Said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, "Consumers have a right to know if the vehicle they are driving has potential safety flaws that could injure or kill them."

Posted 01-14-2005 5:21 PM EDT

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