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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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