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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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The Patriot Act v. the Fourth Amendment

A federal judge in New York ruled Sept. 29 that a key provision of the USA Patriot Act is unconstitutional because it allows the FBI to obtain Internet and other electronic records without any judicial review. The ruling, by U.S. District Court Judge Victor Marrero, came in a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of an Internet service provider that had received a type of subpoena known as a "national security letter" from the FBI.

The judge ordered the Justice Department to stop using the letters, but because he also gave the department 90 days to appeal the decision, the ruling will not have an immediate practical effect.

The national security letters were difficult for the ACLU to challenge in court because the Patriot Act surrounds them in secrecy. The companies that receive the subpoenas are not allowed to reveal that the demand for their records was ever made. What’s more, the ACLU had to file its suit in secret to comply with the law, passed by Congress shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Even now, the name of the company that filed the complaint must be kept secret.

In his decision, Judge Marrero sharply criticized the U.S. government’s penchant for secrecy.

"Under the mantle of secrecy, the self-preservation that ordinarily impels our government to censorship and secrecy may potentially be turned on ourselves as a weapon of self-destruction," he wrote.

The L.A. Times points out that ordinarily, the government is allowed to obtain stored electronic information only through a subpoena or court order. While a 1986 law carved out an exception in terrorism or counter-intelligence cases where the target was an agent of a foreign country, the Patriot Act greatly widened the exception and added secrecy requirements.

Posted 09-30-2004 6:50 PM EDT

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NRC Backs Down on Rulemaking Secrecy

After being sued by Public Citizen and the California environmental group San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission reversed its position and said it would engage in a rulemaking process that allows public input on security regulations at nuclear power plants.

The agency backed down Sept. 10, just before it had to appear before the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia to defend its position, according to a Public Citizen press release.

The two groups sued the NRC earlier this year, accusing the agency of failing to comply with two federal laws when it revised rules in 2003 on how well nuclear power plants must be prepared to respond to terrorist threats. The laws require the agency to notify the public about an upcoming rulemaking and allow public comment. Before it changed its mind, the NRC had argued that it was not required to engage in a public rulemaking and that the court lacked jurisdiction to order the NRC to do so.

The appeals court on Sept. 17 effectively told the agency to provide the rulemaking proceeding sought in the public interest groups’ lawsuit, though officially it gives the NRC the chance to make good on its assurance that it will do so.

Said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s energy program, "We’ll be watching the NRC closely to make sure they follow through on the public’s right to know."

For more information on the NRC rule in question about evaluating threats to nuclear power plants, see the Sept. 9 Public Citizen press release. For more information about the court case, you can see Public Citizen's original "brief on the merits," the follow-up brief in reponse to NRC arguments, and the court's decision.

Posted 09-21-2004 6:23 PM EDT

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Rep. Waxman Blasts Administration Secrecy

U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Government Reform, issued a scathing report Sept. 14 blasting the Bush administration for "conducting an unprecedented assault on the principle of open government."

In the report, titled "Secrecy in the Bush Administration," Waxman describes the many ways in which the administration has restricted the flow of information from the executive branch to both Congress and the public. The report, written by the committee’s minority staff, "finds that there has been a consistent pattern in the Administration’s actions: laws that are designed to promote public access to information have been undermined, while laws that authorize the government to withhold information or to operate in secret have repeatedly been expanded."

Waxman cites numerous abuses that have been documented here on bushsecrecy.org, including the shielding of information about Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force, withholding from Congress cost estimates of the Medicare prescription drug legislation, and secret detentions and trials of people designated "enemy combatants."

The report also describes how the administration has whittled away at "sunshine laws" - such as the Freedom of Information Act, the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act - that open the federal government to public scrutiny.

"Taken together," Waxman concludes, "the actions of the Bush administration have resulted in an extraordinary expansion of government secrecy."

 

Posted 09-14-2004 6:46 PM EDT

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NRC Illegally Hid Changes in Security Regulations

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission revised its safety regulations for nuclear power plants earlier this year, but it violated the law by failing to allow the public to comment on the changes.

Public Citizen and the California environmental group San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace have taken the NRC to court on the issue, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia heard oral arguments on the case September 10. The two groups said in a September 9 press release that the NRC violated the Administrative Procedures Act, which would allow the public and the states in which the reactors are located to comment on the new rules and would require the NRC to take those comments into account.

The new rules focus on a security exercise called the "design basis threat," in which the NRC evaluates scenarios for attacks on nuclear power plants. A key ingredient is "force-on-force" tests, simulations in which a group of mock attackers attempt to gain access to restricted plant areas.

"After taking almost a year and a half following the 9/11 attacks to even consider upgrading the force-on-force security requirements, the NRC rushed the process by bypassing the public altogether," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program.

The new regulations have been criticized for, among other things, failing to require plants to take measures against possible aircraft attacks by terrorists, even though the 9/11 Commission stated that al Qaeda had strongly considered such attacks.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office in congressional testimony in May 2004 also noted that the NRC’s new design basis threat does not take into account the full range of threats identified by the U.S. intelligence community.

Posted 09-13-2004 1:11 PM EDT

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Secretive Medicare Chief Should Have His Pay Docked

Thomas Scully, the Medicare official who kept Congress from finding out the real cost of the Medicare drug benefit, should have had his pay withheld as a penalty for his misdeeds. That was the legal opinion of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which said that Scully fell under a law that states that a federal official who stops another government employee from communicating with Congress should not be paid.

Scully, former administrator of the Medicare program, became the center of a fierce controversy last March, when longtime Medicare actuary Richard Foster said that Scully had threatened to fire him if Foster told Congress his estimates of the real costs of a Medicare drug benefit program. The Bush administration was successful in getting Congress - by the narrowest of margins - to pass its Medicare drug bill in 2003, but only by underestimating the cost of the program by more than $100 billion.

According to the Washington Post, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., called on Scully to return his $145,600 salary. "This was corruption of the process at the highest levels," Lautenberg said. "What is still unclear is who in the Bush White House ordered Mr. Scully not to reveal this information."

Scully told the Associated Press that he did not believe the GAO’s opinion was relevant. Several government agencies have investigated the muzzling of Foster and have arrived at different assessments of whether Scully’s actions were illegal or just unfortunate.

Posted 09-08-2004 3:49 PM EDT

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