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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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Ashcroft Refuses to Release 2002 Torture Memo

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft refuses to release a 2002 Justice Department policy memo that suggests some degree of torture might be justified if it yields information that will prevent terrorist attacks on the United States, The Washington Post reported. During his testimony yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democratic senators asked Ashcroft to give them the unclassified document. The Bush administration has been under fire for the abuse of prisoners that occurred at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and for its questionable interpretations of the Geneva Convention and prisoner classifications.

Meanwhile, editorials in The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times criticized the administration for "legalizing torture" and "twisting American values."

Posted 06-09-2004 11:36 AM EDT

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High Court to Rule on Presidential Powers

There's much at stake for the Bush administration as the U.S. Supreme Court enters the final month of its term. The Court will render verdicts in June that will test President Bush's handling of the war on terrorism and the administration's secrecy surrounding Vice President Dick Cheney's national energy task force, the Los Angeles Times reported. (The story was reprinted in The [Myrtle Beach, S.C.] Sun News.) "This is a term that will be remembered for what the court says about executive power," Bradford Berenson, a Washington lawyer who worked in the Bush White House, told the Times. "And it will be played as either the president overreached and abused his power, or that the president was vindicated."

In one case, the Court will decide whether nearly 600 foreign detainees held in military prisons in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should have access to U.S. courts. In two other cases, justices will decide whether the military should be allowed to hold "enemy combatants" without filing charges or giving them a hearing.

Posted 06-04-2004 2:21 PM EDT

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NASA Gags on Global Warming Movie

The premiere of the global warming disaster film "The Day After Tomorrow" prompted a Bush administration memo to NASA that warns employees to stay out of the media hype surrounding the movie and decline media interview requests on the subject. The movie depicts catastrophic change in Earth's climate that causes massive destruction. Climate experts are skeptical about the science behind the chaos, but the idea that moviegoers could become alarmed and blame the Bush administration for its inattention to the environmental issue has caused some concern at the space agency.

A senior NASA scientist who said he resented attempts to muzzle climate researchers sent a copy of the gag order memo to The New York Times. In an urgent e-mail message dated April 1, sent to dozens of scientists and officers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, Goddard's top press officer instructs, "No one from NASA is to do interviews or otherwise comment on anything having to do with (the film). Any news media wanting to discuss science fiction vs. science fact about climate change will need to seek comment from individuals or organizations not associated with NASA."

The movie contains subtle criticisms of a  Bush-like administration that likely makes the White House cringe. The movie's lead character is a paleoclimatologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Bush's proposed 2005 budget would sharply cut the agency's paleoclimatology program.

Posted 05-28-2004 10:10 AM EDT

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Missing Pieces in the Abu Ghraib Puzzle

Senior U.S. officials continue to claim that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top military leaders had no knowledge of the barbaric abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and played no role in orchestrating or encouraging such interrogation tactics. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee are trying to find out who knew what and when they knew it, but the investigation is being hampered by the Pentagon's withholding of 2,000 pages of the military's 6,000-page report of the Army's investigation into the prisoner abuse scandal. 

Among those missing documents, according to The Wall Street Journal (subscription required), is a "draft update for the Secretary of Defense" on interrogation rules. Three other key documents the congressional investigators would like to examine are also missing. They relate to a visit by the current commander of all U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, who had some suggestions for improving prisoner interrogations.

Posted 05-27-2004 2:22 PM EDT

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Bush Administration Fights for Secrecy in the High Court

The Supreme Court yesterday heard arguments from the solicitor general and from former Public Citizen Litigation Group director Alan Morrison - representing the Sierra Club - on VP Dick Cheney's refusal to release records involving the energy task force that formulated the Bush administration's energy policy. The government's lawyer argued that because of separation of powers, Cheney shouldn't have to disclose details of the secret meetings with industry executives and lobbyists. The Sierra Club and Judicial Watch, a conservative group also suing for disclosure, argued that the public has a right to know who influenced energy policy. Morrison contends that task force participants were members of an official advisory committee, and that federal law requires disclosure of such committees' makeup and activities. The resulting energy policy is laden with tax breaks, subsidies and regulatory relief for energy companies.

Justice Antonin Scalia's questions at the hearing were widely interpreted to indicate that he was on the side of non-disclosure. Scalia's presence was controversial because of a January duck-hunting trip he and Cheney took together.

Read coverage of the hearing in the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today - and a piece by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

Posted 04-28-2004 11:58 AM EDT

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