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The Department of Secret Propaganda

The Bush administration, apparently not satisfied with the usual methods of manipulating news coverage, has been caught paying a prominent journalist to support its views and sending out fake video news segments posing as real news.

On Jan. 8, The Washington Post described how the U.S. Department of Education paid prominent black conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $241,000 to promote the administration’s No Child Left Behind law. The contract called for Armstrong to comment favorably on the law in his broadcasts and to use his contacts with African-American news producers to get favorable coverage of the law.

Armstrong has his own radio show, "The Right Side," appears frequently on CNN and other TV outlets, and has (until recently) had a syndicated column carried by Chicago-based Tribune Media Services. But that company dropped his column when it learned that Armstrong had been paid by a federal agency to promote its agenda.

And on Jan. 7, The Post also revealed that the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy has been sending out video news releases that look like television news segments and which at least 300 local TV stations have used. The segments have an announcer posing as a journalist, and many stations are believed to have used them without ever identifying them as coming from the government.

The Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency, said the news releases were illegal "covert propaganda." This latest abuse comes after many similar incidents. Last spring, the GAO criticized the Department of Health and Human Services for putting out similar fake news reports promoting the government’s new Medicare drug benefit.

"What is objectionable about these is the fact the viewer has no idea their tax dollars are being used to write and produce this video segment," explained GAO official Susan Poling.

 

Posted 01-10-2005 2:21 PM EDT

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Let's Not Talk About Missile Defense

Back in 1983, President Ronald Reagan promised the nation a high-tech shield against missile attacks. The White House called the plan the Strategic Defense Initiative; critics called it Star Wars and said it was an impossible dream.

Twenty-two years later, America still has no missile shield and the U.S. Department of Defense is doing its best to keep the truth about it from the public. In 2000, the Pentagon’s Department of Operational Testing and Evaluation put out a report that was highly critical of U.S. efforts to assemble a national missile defense system. The report was discussed in public hearings and reported on in the media.

Three years later, the DoD classified the document, without offering any justification - even though the substance of it was well known. The Washington watchdog organization, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), is doing its best to fight the Pentagon’s retroactive classification. It is asking people to write Rumsfeld protesting the classification, and has posted details on how to do that. POGO states that the secrecy move is most likely an attempt to stifle debate on the expensive missile defense program, which had another test failure Dec. 15.

 

 

 

Posted 12-27-2004 5:39 PM EDT

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A Ray of Sunshine on Classified Documents?

The National Intelligence Reform Act passed by Congress on Dec. 8 does create a new "director of national intelligence" position - and that’s what has gotten most of the media attention. But it does other things as well.

From the perspective of Americans worried about too much government secrecy, the law also contains a bit of good news: It creates a Public Interest Declassification Board, a body members of Congress can appeal to when they feel federal agencies are classifying too much information in the name of national security.

Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) pushed for the new board, partly as a response to a controversy over how much of a scathing congressional report on CIA assessments of Iraq could be made public. The CIA wanted to classify more than half of the report, but members of Congress got that down to 20 percent.

Last year alone, the U.S. government spent $6.5 billion creating 14.3 million new classified documents, according to a statement from Wyden’s office

The board will have nine members - five appointed by the president and four appointed by Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress. The Associated Press report on creation of the board is based on Wyden’s statement.

The intelligence act also tries to inject a bit of civil liberties awareness into the Department of Homeland Security. It adds the protection of civil liberties and civil rights to the department’s mission statement, and creates a new position to protect civil liberties and civil rights in the DHS office of the inspector general.

 

Posted 12-13-2004 12:22 PM EDT

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How to Say "No to Secrecy" in Indonesian

Fred Burks, a valued State Department interpreter for 18 years, has quit his job rather than sign a secrecy agreement. Burks, who has interpreted for Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, told The Washington Post he had quit in protest over growing government secrecy demands.

A contract interpreter, Burks had never been required to sign a secrecy agreement until last month. When the State Department told him he would have to sign a new contract in which he would promise not to reveal any information he learned in his government service, he just refused. And since he never did sign such an agreement, he has been able to tell his story to any media that will listen.

Burks was valued by the State Department because he was qualified in two difficult languages, Mandarin and Indonesian. He says he is one of three American interpreters qualified at the highest level in Indonesian.

An interesting side note: When Burks interpreted for Bush at a 2001 meeting with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarno, he told The Post, "Bush displayed such a detailed grasp of Indonesian issues at the meeting that he came away thinking the president must have been fed information through a hidden earpiece." Reminds us of a presidential debate we watched not long ago . . . .

Posted 12-09-2004 6:24 PM EDT

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Compromise Proposed on Cheney Energy Task Force

Open-government advocates launched a new initiative Nov. 30 in the long-running battle legal battle over Vice President Cheney’s energy task force. The nonprofit National Security Archive, along with several library, journalist and public interest organizations, filed a brief that points to a compromise solution that would reveal some information about the task force but allow the task force records to remain confidential.

The task force was one of the earliest, and most hotly contested, secrecy moves of the Bush administration. Assembled shortly after Bush and Cheney took office in 2001, the task force met secretly with industry lobbyists and executives to formulate a national energy strategy that was very friendly to business and ignored environmental concerns.

For more than two years, the conservative group Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club have been trying to gain access to the task force records. They believe that keeping the records secret violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Critics also believe that the task force met with energy industry lobbyists while excluding environmental, consumer and public interest input - which biased the task force’s recommendations.

While the Bush administration has lost several rounds in the courts, it has kept filing appeals. One result: The records were still locked up during the fall presidential campaign. The case is now awaiting a second hearing in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The controversy has been covered extensively in this blog.

The National Security Archive, a Washington-based nonprofit that makes public previously secret government materials, and its allies have filed an amicus curiae brief in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. They recommend that the parties work out a compromise that would accommodate the competing interests in the case. The compromise would set up a "Cheney log" providing enough information so that outsiders could tell whether non-government persons participated in the task force. That in turn determines whether the Federal Advisory Committee Act applies.

Posted 12-03-2004 11:16 AM EDT

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Don't say a word

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has taken government secrecy under the Bush administration to a whole new level - requiring each of its 180,000 employees and contractors to sign a pledge prohibiting them from divulging sensitive information to the public. The agreements apply to more than just classified information - they include any information that could “adversely affect the national interest or the conduct of federal programs” or violate a person’s privacy, according to The Washington Post.

The department went so far as to ask congressional aides to also sign nondisclosure agreements as a condition of getting information - an affront that was rejected by both GOP and Democratic aides. “They’re forgetting who’s overseeing who,” said one official of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security.

Violators of the pledge risk disciplinary, civil or criminal penalties. Signers must consent to government inspections “at any time or place.”

Critics say the secrecy pledges are overly broad, unworkable and maybe even unconstitutional. “Its likely consequence will be to chill even the most mundane interactions between department employees and reporters or the general public,” said Steven Aftergood, editor of the Federation of American Scientists’ newsletter. “Employees will naturally fear that even the most trivial conversation could mean a violation of this draconian agreement, and so the result will be a new wall between the government and the public.”

While the DHS says the new policy will not affect information available under the Freedom of Information Act, one likely result is that the department will be able to operate with much less accountability to the public.

Posted 11-16-2004 12:26 PM EDT

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Why Isn't Bush Secrecy a Campaign Issue?

Why hasn’t the Bush administration’s drastic expansion of government secrecy become an issue in the 2004 campaign? asks Dorothy Samuels on the editorial page of the Nov. 1 New York Times - even though she knows the answer. A member of the Times editorial board, Samuels herself recites the list of higher-profile issues that have captured the attention of the media and the public: "the Red Sox, Iraq, terrorism, taxes and the mysterious iPod-size bulge visible under the back of Mr. Bush’s suit jacket in the first debate."

Drawing largely on a September report issued by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and blogged here, Samuels cites the numerous instances of unnecessary, unwise and anti-democratic secretiveness that this blog has covered extensively. Examples: the administration’s balking at turning over key documents to the 9/11 Commission, establishment of the new secrecy category "sensitive but unclassified," and hiding detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo.

Samuels asks why the Kerry campaign has not raised these issues, and admits they’ve garnered "just a trivial level of attention." But, she says, "the implications for a second term are ominous."

Posted 11-02-2004 1:18 PM EDT

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NRC Closes Web Library to Terrorists

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced Oct. 25 that it has closed off public access to its Web library of documents to do a new security review of the site and make sure it does not contain information that could be useful to terrorists. The agency said it would probably be several weeks until the library is back online.

The NRC library never has contained classified information, but this new review is "intended to ensure that documents which might provide assistance to terrorists will be inaccessible," the NRC said. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the NRC took down its Web site and removed more than 1,000 documents that contained "sensitive information." Since then, the agency has enforced stricter guidelines on what materials may be revealed to the public.

According to the Associated Press, the review came after NBC News reported that the agency’s Web site included detailed information about the location of radioactive substances used in medicine and industry that could be used to make a "dirty bomb."

The agency said the shutdown also would cut off access to NRC staff documents about the controversial Yucca Mountain high-level nuclear waste repository and documents in the NRC hearings docket.

 

 

 

Posted 10-28-2004 11:51 AM EDT

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377 Tons of Missing Iraqi High Explosives? Shhhhh!

The theft of 377 tons of high explosives in Iraq, recently revealed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, is just the most recent example of the Bush administration’s "culture of cover-ups," writes Paul Krugman on the op-ed page of the Oct. 26 New York Times.

Krugman reports that the administration knew about the theft at Al QaQaa for over six months but did its best to keep it secret. Not only didn’t they say a word about it, they didn’t let the IAEA inspect the site, plus they pressured the Iraqis not to tell the agency about the theft. No wonder - U.S. forces had failed to secure the site, even though the IAEA had warned the occupying coalition that it should do so. The story of the missing explosives surfaced in the Times and other media Oct. 25.

Krugman quotes "the influential Nelson Report" as saying that the missing explosives from Al QaQaa are the "primary source" of the roadside and car bombs that have been killing and wounding U.S. and allied soldiers in recent months.

And that’s not all. Another amazing cover-up was revealed this week by The Wall Street Journal and the NBC Nightly News. Turns out that before the Iraqi war, the Bush administration called off a planned attack that might have killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist leader now regarded as America’s Public Enemy Number One in Iraq. Why didn’t the U.S. strike? Krugman cites convoluted reasoning about the U.S. preparing its case for war against Iraq.

Don’t expect the cover-up culture to improve if President Bush is re-elected, Krugman warns. Bush’s new CIA director, Porter Goss, is already suppressing evidence of CIA intelligence failures that might embarrass the administration - at least until after Nov. 2.

 

Posted 10-26-2004 5:33 PM EDT

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Senate Votes to Disclose Intelligence Budget, But DOE goes the other way

The U.S. Senate voted Oct. 5 to break with long-standing precedent and direct the government to disclose the total U.S. intelligence budget. That budget figure has been kept secret for 50 years.

The 55-37 vote to release the numbers came when the senators rejected an amendment by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) that would have required the government to continue keeping the numbers secret.

The change in the law is part of a sweeping revision in the U.S. intelligence network, spurred by the report of the official 9/11 Commission. That body criticized over-classification of U.S. intelligence matters and recommended disclosing the overall intelligence budget.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, would create a new intelligence czar with broad authority over all 15 U.S. intelligence agencies. The bill would reveal only the overall size of the intelligence budget - not the dimensions of any particular agency or program. The nation’s intelligence spending is believed to be about $40 billion per year.

Stevens and other senators argued strongly against declassifying the budget number. "Listen to me," Stevens said in the Senate debate. "You have not lived with how we have financed the intelligence community. The money is not disclosed. It is put in parts of the budget and you don’t know where it is. It rests with Sen. [Daniel] Inouye and me, to be honest about it, and we make sure that it is what it is. Maybe four people in the House and Senate know where this is. You are telling us to disclose it."

But just as the Senate was making a small move toward transparency, the U.S. Department of Energy was moving in the opposite direction. The Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy revealed that the DOE - which until this year made its intelligence budget public - has now classified it and removed it from the public record. In addition, the department is trying to retroactively classify intelligence budget information that has already been published.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the DOE did reveal a heavily redacted version of its 2005 intelligence budget - but with an odd little twist. For decades, whenever the federal government kept information secret in responding to FOIA requests, such pages were filled with heavy black lines where information had been blacked out. Showing a new sensitivity to its public image, the DOE this time whited out the offending passages. Sure, the information is still withheld, but it looks much less stark . . . and presents a less inviting image for the media.

Posted 10-06-2004 7:25 PM EDT

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