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From Comical to Coverups, Secrets Perplex House Panel

Secrets classified by the U.S. government range from the absurd to the irrelevant to coverups of official mistakes, a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee learned in an Aug. 24 hearing.

Among the classified secrets: the favorite drink of retired Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and a terrorist plot to hijack Santa Claus fabricated by a bored CIA analyst with a sense of humor. An Associated Press story detailing the secrets appeared in the Sept. 3 Washington Post.

"There are too many secrets," concluded U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), chairman of the House subcommittee on national security. "The tone is set at the top. This administration believes the less known, the better. I believe the more known, the better."

Steven Aftergood, director of a project on government secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists, told the subcommittee that some classification was intended to conceal illegal government activities or avoid embarrassment. He cited as an example the "secret" stamp placed on Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba’s report on sadistic and illegal abuses of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.

Officials decided to classify documents 8 percent more often in 2003 than in 2002, said J. William Leonard, the National Archives official in charge of monitoring federal information practices. Total classification decisions - including upgrading and downgrading - numbered 14 million in 2003.

Leonard noted that a 2000 law called for creation of a public interest classification board to recommend release of secrets in important cases. But that board has never met, because neither the president nor the Congress have appointed any members.

 

 

Posted 09-03-2004 1:16 PM EDT

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Locked Out of a Secret Court

The Justice Department says that outside parties, like librarians and booksellers, are free to challenge a controversial section of the USA Patriot Act. The only problem is that the court in which they can make their appeal - the super-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) - does not allow anyone but U.S. government attorneys to appear before the court or file motions with it.

The American Civil Liberties Union exposed the apparent contradiction when it obtained a copy of the court’s rules of procedure and made them public, according to an Aug. 30 Washington Post article.

One duty of the court is to oversee Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which permits the government to secretly seize records from libraries, bookstores and other businesses, while forbidding the library from publicly revealing that the search took place.

In a Michigan lawsuit filed by the ACLU challenging that provision of the Patriot Act, the Justice Department said anyone targeted under the law would be able to contest it before the secret FISC. The only question is how.

A spokesman for the American Library Association, which opposes that part of the Patriot Act, declared, "They keep saying you can challenge it, but they have never indicated how anyone could actually do so."

The Justice Department declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

Posted 08-31-2004 12:13 PM EDT

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Senators Call for Reform to Combat Over-classification

Trent Lott, one of the most conservative Republicans in the U.S. Senate, and Ron Wyden, one of the most liberal Democrats, joined forces on the New York Times op-ed page Aug. 26 to make the case that the federal government is classifying far too much information. They suggest that Congress establish an independent board to "bring some common sense to bear on the national security classification system."

Lott, of Mississippi, and Wyden, of Oregon, cite Thomas Kean, the chairman of the independent 9/11 commission, who declared that three quarters of the classified material he reviewed for the commission should not have been classified in the first place. Breaking with that pattern of secrecy, almost all of the commission’s report was made public without redactions (blacked-out passages).

The op-ed, called "Hiding the Truth Behind a Cloud of Black Ink," calls for setting up an independent three-person body that would recommend standards for classifying government information and would also serve as an appeals board to re-examine classification decisions. Congress needs "an independent appeals process," they say, so no administration can keep too many secrets from Congress. Wyden and Lott have proposed legislation to establish such a body.

Posted 08-27-2004 1:15 PM EDT

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You Know You're Too Secretive When . . .

John Dean knows secretive. As White House counsel to Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, Dean served one of the most manipulative and secretive men ever to hold the presidency.

Dean also gained notoriety as the staffer who essentially blew the whistle on the Watergate break-in and coverup, and who boldly told President Nixon, "You have a cancer on your presidency."

But Dean says he has concluded that when it comes to secrecy, the current Bush administration is the worst he’s seen. In a recent talk in Seaside, Calif., Dean told his audience, " This is a bad presidency because it is a secretive presidency."

According to a report in The Salinas Californian, Dean said the upcoming November election could be susceptible to rigging or scandals. "Could you have another Watergate? Sure you could," he said.

Dean has been promoting his book, Worse Than Watergate, which criticizes the administration for excessive secrecy and numerous other abuses.

Posted 08-24-2004 6:07 PM EDT

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Government Uses Secret Evidence in Patriot Act Cases

The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the Justice Department’s use of the Patriot Act to get information about people without judicial oversight, but the ACLU says its legal work is being hampered by the government’s use of gag orders and secret evidence.

According to The Washington Post, "the government also censored more than a dozen seemingly innocuous passages from court filings on national security grounds, only to be overruled by the judge." Among the censored passages was a quotation from a 1972 Supreme Court ruling warning about the danger of the government using national security reasons to stifle dissent.

The ACLU is challenging as unconstitutional two practices permitted by the Patriot Act:

  • the power to access medical, library and other private records without a subpoena or warrant based on probably cause; and,
  • the FBI’s authority to use "National Security Letters" to demand customer records from Internet service providers and other businesses without judicial oversight.

In each case, the government has filed an affidavit with the court that the plaintiffs (the ACLU) and the public are entirely barred from seeing. This, of course, puts the plaintiffs at a disadvantage in arguing their case.

According to the Washington Post, "The disclosures provide the latest example of the Bush administration’s aggressive classification of documents and information related to terrorism and other national security issues, even as its efforts have come under increasing attack in the courts, in Congress and from the Sept. 11 commission."

The ACLU posted on its Web site several examples of text that the Justice Department initially wanted to keep secret but which the courts permitted to be released.

Posted August 20, 2004

Posted 08-20-2004 6:17 PM EDT

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Auto Safety Data Kept Secret

Four years ago, after learning that defective Firestone tires mounted on Ford Explorers were causing a rash of deadly rollover crashes, Congress passed a new law to quickly make auto safety data available to the public. But to the dismay of Public Citizen and other safety advocates who pushed for the law, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) decided that the detailed information about unsafe automobiles, tires and parts will be kept secret.

The reason for the cover-up? Auto manufacturers complained that release of the data would hurt their companies, and NHTSA bowed to the pressure.

The episode is a prime example of how the administration uses the regulatory process to make pro-business policy far from public scrutiny.

"Apparently, the automakers and the government have decided they don’t want people to have accurate information because they might be misled, because they can’t be trusted with this data," Public Citizen attorney Scott Nelson told the Detroit Free Press in an Aug. 18 story. "They are arguing that this information is too confusing for the public, but at the same time they argue this information is so valuable their competitors could ferret out detailed data from it."

Public Citizen, which is waging legal battles with the administration over secrecy on several fronts, has sued the Department of Transportation to make the safety information public.

"Secrecy is rampant in this administration," Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook told the paper. "It’s shocking to me that information that should be out there for consumers should be kept secret from them."

The Free Press article came on the heels of a related Aug. 14 New York Times story describing how the Bush administration has used the public’s preoccupation with terrorism and war to get away with a raft of anti-consumer and anti-environmental regulations. Said the Times, "Health rules, environmental regulations, energy initiatives, worker-safety standards and product-safety disclosure policies have been modified in ways that often please business and industry leaders while dismaying interest groups representing consumers, workers, drivers, medical patients, the elderly and many others."

Posted 08-20-2004 12:51 PM EDT

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NRC Turns Out the Lights on Power Plant Security Ratings

For years, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission made public how well nuclear power plants were performing on tests and inspections of plant security. But on August 4, the NRC announced that it had shut down that flow of information.

Citing concerns that terrorists could use information about security flaws, the NRC removed from its Web site previously posted reports on each of the nation's 64 nuclear power plants and stated it would no longer release updated information to the public. Where information was previously given on each plant under the category "Physical Protection," it now reads "Not Public." The information had been available at www.nrc.gov/NRR/OVERSIGHT/ASSESS/index.html.

"We need to blacken [hide] some of our processes so that our adversaries won't have that information," NRC official Roy Zimmerman told the Associated Press. See www.nytimes.com/aponline/national/AP-Nuclear-Security.html.

But Public Citizen and other public interest groups say that by taking this action, the NRC is hiding rather harmless safety information from the communities that surround the power plants in addition to information that could be used to help stage an attack.

Brendan Hoffman, a specialist in nuclear issues at Public Citizen's Critical Mass Environment and Energy Program, said the information shutdown was almost certainly related to NRC's anticipated reactivation in November of its "force-on-force" exercises. In those exercises, mock terrorists stage commando-style attacks to probe for potential deficiencies in nuclear power plant defenses. Those exercises were suspended after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and have since been made more realistic.

Public Citizen also raised concerns about how useful some of the force-on-force tests would be. The private security firm Wackenhut has been hired to stage the mock attacks but is also contracted to guard nearly half of America's nuclear plants, which hardly gives the "attackers" an incentive to reveal weaknesses in plant defenses.

Posted 08-06-2004 5:53 PM EDT

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Justice Dept. Rescinds Order to Destroy Documents

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) ordered all federal depository libraries to destroy five DOJ documents, but then changed its mind when the American Library Association (ALA) vigorously objected.

The flap arose when the DOJ decided in June that five non-secret government documents had been mistakenly distributed to the 1,300 libraries around the country that store government documents. The documents deal with how citizens can retrieve items that the government has confiscated during an investigation. Two of the documents were the texts of U.S. laws.

The DOJ said the documents were for internal training use, were not "appropriate for external use," and should be destroyed.

ALA disagreed. It urged its members to contact Congress to oppose the DOJ move, and filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the withdrawn materials to underline its objection.

The Justice Department quickly reversed course, and declared Aug. 2 that it had rescinded the document-destruction order. Casey Stavropoulos, a DOJ spokesperson, told The Washington Post that while the department had not intended to share the five documents, "there wasn't sensitivity in the actual material that required removal from the library system."

The ALA says it's happy with that result, and has withdrawn its FOIA request.

To read the ALA's statement, click here.

Posted 08-05-2004 6:14 PM EDT

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Federal Contracting Database Gets Privatized

At a time when pointed questions have been raised about who gets government contracts and how they're awarded, the U.S. General Services Administration is turning over its main database about federal contracting to a private company. Public interest groups and academics have raised concerns that the information will now become less accessible and more expensive.

GSA swears that won't be true. GSA official David Drabkin said, "You'll be able to get more information, you'll be able to get it quickly," The Washington Post reported August 2.

But some government contracting experts say that by handing the database over to a private firm - Global Computer Enterprises of Reston, Va. - the government exempts the data from the Freedom of Information Act, a valuable tool for watchdogs and researchers.

The for-profit company may also be inclined to charge more for information supplied, and Drabkin admitted prices were likely to rise.

"It seems to me to be wrongheaded for the government to intentionally take data that they have been generating and give it to a contractor for the purposes of not disclosing it," said Steven Schooner, a professor at George Washington University Law School.

Posted 08-03-2004 4:44 PM EDT

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Justice Department Investigation backs FBI Whistleblower's Story

The case of fired FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds just got a lot more intriguing. A classified Justice Department investigation has concluded that she was fired from her job as a translator in 2002 in part because she repeatedly complained that FBI linguists were producing shoddy translations of important terrorism intelligence before and after the 9/11 attacks, The New York Times reported on July 29. Justice's inspector general also said the FBI failed to aggressively investigate her claims of espionage against a co-worker.

The case, the Times said, is a growing concern to the FBI because it could reveal vulnerabilities in the bureau's ability to translate sensitive counterterrorism data, its treatment of whistleblowers and its classification of materials that could prove embarrassing.

An official who spoke with the Times on the condition of anonymity said the investigation had confirmed some of Edmonds's allegations and that none of her accusations had been disproved. The Times learned of the investigation after obtaining a copy of a letter sent from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to lawmakers.

"The Justice Department has imposed an unusually broad veil of secrecy on the Edmonds case, declaring details of her case to be a matter of 'state secrets,'" the Times reported. "The department has blocked her from testifying in a lawsuit brought by families of Sept. 11 victims, it has retroactively classified briefings Congressional officials were given in 2002, and it has classified the inspector general's entire report on its investigation into her case."

The Project on Government Oversight, represented by the Public Citizen Litigation Group, is suing the Justice Department over its decision to classify documents that had already been released to Congress and posted by several senators on the Internet.

Posted 07-29-2004 2:23 PM EDT

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Mystery Surrounds Archivist's Firing

Why did President Bush give U.S. Archivist John W. Carlin the boot? Carlin, who was asked to resign last December, says he was not given a reason. But White House critics suggest that Bush may have wanted a replacement who would help keep his or his father's sensitive presidential records under wraps, The Washington Post reported on July 26.

Many of President George H.W. Bush's confidential records are scheduled to become public in January under the Presidential Records Act of 1978. But Bush Jr. issued an executive order in 2001 that "establishes new hurdles to access such records," the Post said. The order allows a former president or vice president, or the incumbent president, to block release of documents by claiming "executive privilege." Public Citizen, representing a coalition of historians, journalists and public interest groups, is challenging that order in federal court. The issue remains unresolved, but the White House earlier responded to the lawsuit by allowing 68,000 pages of Reagan materials and several thousand pages of Bush vice presidential materials to be made public.

Bush's nominee for Archivist, historian Allen Weinstein, said he supports the Presidential Records Act but added that if confirmed by the Senate he would be obliged to defend Bush's executive order against the lawsuit, the Post reported.

Meanwhile, Clinton appointee Carlin remains in office and has said he will formally resign when the new Archivist is confirmed and sworn in. That might be a while, as Senate Democrats are asking some pointed questions about the whole affair. Democrats on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee insist that Bush explain his reason for firing Carlin.

Click here for more information on the lawsuit.

Posted 07-26-2004 3:16 PM EDT

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Resurrected Records

Payroll records involving President Bush's disputed National Guard service, which the Pentagon previously said had been destroyed, have been founded and released to the news media, the New York Times reported on July 24. On June 25, responding to Freedom of Information requests by several news organizations, the Pentagon said the records were accidentally destroyed several years ago during a period when the Defense Department was trying was salvage aging microfilm.

Now they records are back. But the Times reports that the records do little to clear up lingering questions over whether Bush fulfilled his Guard commitment between May 1972 and May 1972. The records show that Bush did not perform service in July, August and September of 1972, confirming what other records already showed.

"Two other sets of payroll records, previously released, appear to conflict over whether Mr. Bush earned any service credits at all in 1972, but a White House spokeswoman attributed the discrepancy to accounting procedures," the Times wrote.

Posted 07-26-2004 3:07 PM EDT

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Administration Says No to UN Auditors

The Bush administration is withholding information from international auditors about how $1.4 billion in contracts for work in Iraq was awarded to Halliburton without competitive bidding, according to a July 16 story in The Washington Post and wire reports.

The International Advisory and Monitoring Board (IAMB), composed of representatives of the UN, World Bank and IMF, was established in 2003 to make sure Iraq's oil revenues were managed properly during the U.S. occupation. But the U.N. representative says the U.S. has repeatedly stonewalled requests to turn over internal audits, including those pertaining to three contracts awarded to Halliburton, the oil services company headed by VP Dick Cheney from 1995 to 2000. The U.S. also has not produced lists of other companies that were awarded no-bid contracts in Iraq.

The IAMB has released an audit that sharply criticizes the management of billions of dollars in Iraq oil revenue by the U.S.-led coalition. The audit uncovered inadequate accounting, high turnover among responsible officials and a failure to ensure competitive bidding - conditions the IAMB said would make it easy for fraudulent activities to take place.

Posted 07-20-2004 10:02 AM EDT

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Records? What records?

The Bush administration's obsession with secrecy might, just might, become an issue in the presidential campaign---at least if the Kerry campaign has anything to do with it. On July 13, John Kerry's campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, wrote a letter to Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman in response to Mehlman's request for a tape of a Kerry fund-raising event. Cahill responded that she would not consider the request until the White House agree to make public a variety of documents withheld from the public.

"The fact is that the nation has a greater interest in seeing several documents made public relating to the President's performance in office and personal veracity that the White House has steadfastly refused to release," Cahill wrote.

Those records include: "military records that would actually prove he fulfilled the terms of his military service"; all correspondence between the Defense Department and Halliburton regarding the no-bid contract awarded to VP Cheney's former company; the records pertaining to Cheney's energy task force "so that the country can learn what lobbyists and special interests wrote the White House energy policy; correspondence between the White House and pharmaceutical industry regarding the Medicare Rx drug bill; and finally, the "remaining documents" about the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq.

In closing, Cahill noted that "today marks one year since Administration sources leaked the identity of a covert CIA agent to Bob Novak in an effort to retaliate against a critic of the Administration."

Posted 07-19-2004 2:42 PM EDT

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Washington Post: Current Classification System Needs Overhaul

The system the intelligence community uses to classify information needs to be examined to prevent blatant abuse of power, according to The Washington Post. With the current system, no one can have confidence that decisions are being made solely for national security.

"It's time to consider an alternative mechanism that could balance the legitimate competing needs for secrecy and openness without suffering from the conflict of interest inherent in the existing system. One solution is on the front end: to reduce the rampant overclassification of information in the first place," a Washington Post July 13, 2004 editorial said.

Posted 07-13-2004 5:24 PM EDT

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High Court Allows Cheney to Keep Task Force Records Secret

The U.S. Supreme Court's 7-2 decision means that the White House won't immediately be required to turn over records that would show what role industry lobbyists played in helping to formulate the Bush administration's national energy policy, various newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The New York Times reported. A federal district judge had earlier ruled that Vice President Dick Cheney had to provide energy task force records to two public interest groups that sued to gain access to them. The case was sent back to the courts to more carefully weigh the executive branch's arguments for shielding information from the public. The High Court's ruling sets the stage for months or years of additional legal wrangling which will ensure that the documents are kept secret at least past the November election.

"The decision is a partial win for Mr. Cheney, who gets to keep the task force's records secret while litigation continues. But it also casts the courts in an odd light," because the Court seems to be giving the Bush administration more leeway than its predecessor, a Post editorial said.

Posted 06-25-2004 1:05 PM EDT

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Public Citizen Sues Attorney General Ashcroft

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO), represented by Public Citizen, sued Attorney General John Ashcroft and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) today over the DOJ's reclassification of information that alleges corruption, incompetence and cover-ups in an FBI translation unit. The lawsuit asks the court to find the agency's May reclassification of information unlawful and unconstitutional and require it to declassify the information. The information relates to allegations made by whistleblower Sibel Edmonds, a former FBI linguist who was fired after reporting to superiors numerous instances of wrongdoing in the FBI translation unit where she worked.

This information was presented by the FBI during two unclassified 2002 briefings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee and was referenced in letters from U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Charles Grassley to DOJ officials. The letters were posted on the senators' Web sites but were removed after the DOJ

Posted 06-23-2004 3:27 PM EDT

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AP Sues for Access to Bush National Guard Records

Seeking access to all records pertaining to President Bush's military service, the Associated Press sued the U.S. Department of Defense and the Air Force today, the AP reported. The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in New York, seeks access to a copy of Bush's complete personnel file. The file is on microfilm at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission in Austin. The Bush administration said it has released all records of Bush's military service, but there are questions about whether the file the White House released earlier this year is incomplete, the AP said.

In April, the AP requested in writing that Bush sign a waiver of his right to keep his records confidential, but the White House had not responded, the AP reported.

Posted 06-23-2004 3:21 PM EDT

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Cloak of Secrecy Hinders Oversight of Biotech Industry

A federal law that protects the trade secrets of biotech companies, which produce controversial genetically modified crops, also shields the industry from oversight, according to The Sacramento Bee. "The cloak of secrecy" employed by companies is the so-called "CBI" -- short for confidential business information, the Bee reported. Biotech companies use CBI to redact large portions of applications for experimental crops, making it difficult to find out when companies break rules designed to prevent introducing disease or infestation to an area and the spread of biotech genes beyond test plots.

The National Academy of Sciences has warned that the lack of transparency in biotechnology is so pervasive that public confidence in federal oversight could be undermined by the companies' ability to withhold vast amounts of information, the newspaper reported. (The article was one in a five-part series about the biotech industry.)

Posted 06-14-2004 4:02 PM EDT

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Newsday: Bush Should Release Torture Memos

Congress and the American people deserve to know why and to what extent the White House was "exploring the boundaries of the laws against torture," a (New York) Newsday editorial said. It called on President Bush to release administration memos that reportedly offered a rationale for torturing terrorist operatives and discussed ways around U.S. and international bans on torture. In the wake of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the Bush administration "should release the memos and any other documents that would shed light on its thinking and policy on torture," the newspaper said.

"Questions about tortured prisoners are too integral to the nation's faith in the rule of law and too damaging to its image abroad to be shrouded in secrecy," Newsday said.

Posted 06-10-2004 4:22 PM EDT

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