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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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