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Secrecy Is White House's Obsession

Allowing Condoleezza Rice to testify publicly under oath before the 9/11 commission should have been an easy call for President Bush. Instead, his latest reversal came as a result of intense public and political pressure, and it underscores this administration's "obsession with secrecy" and illustrates the White House's "disregard for the public's right to know," a Los Angeles Times editorial said. Also, the Times asserts that since 9/11 the Bush administration has strained "credulity and democracy by insisting ... that citizens have no right to learn whether their tires on their cars could explode or what this administration did with information it had on terror threats."

Posted 04-02-2004 10:33 AM EDT

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White House Declassifies to Serve Political Needs

The Bush administration's penchant for secrecy is maddening, but worse still is the inconsistent decision-making regarding the declassification of documents. "What we're learning is that classification is a political tool," Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy told The Washington Post. "It can be used to advance or retard a particular agenda. The CIA, for example, is reviewing for declassification last year's testimony of former White House counterterrorism official Richard Clark after he told the panel investigating 9/11 last week that the Bush administration ignored the terrorism threat prior to the 2001 attacks.

Posted 04-02-2004 9:58 AM EDT

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Rice to Testify Publicly Before 9/11 Panel

In the face of mounting pressure, the White House has reversed course and will allow national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify before the independent commission investigating the 9/11 attacks, CNN reported. Rice said she resisted calls to testify in public as a matter of principle. In public testimony, former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke has charged that the Bush administration didn't do enough to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney also will meet privately with the commission.

The White House had argued that allowing a presidential adviser, such as Rice, to testify before a congressionally created body would set new precedent and violate the executive privilege doctrine.

Posted 03-30-2004 12:02 PM EDT

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Nuke Agency Withholds Unclassified Information

Critics argue that U.S. nuclear power plants and weapons facilities should be able to fend off an attack from as many as 19 assailants in four squads. After 9/11, the Bush administration updated a much weaker 1980s-era security standard, but the attack scenario still involves considerably fewer attackers. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is keeping the new standard secret. What's frustrating watchdog groups now is that the agency is also withholding information about a nuclear power company's unclassified request for a waiver of security requirements, The Washington Post reported.

It's just the latest example of how the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy -- of even unclassified information -- is squelching public debate about security matters. The Bush administration's cloak and dagger policymaking has made it nearly impossible to hold government officials accountable for their decisions.

Posted 03-29-2004 1:40 PM EDT

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Former Official Admits Giving Order to Withhold Medicare Data

Thomas Scully, former administrator of the Medicare program, confirmed to The New York Times that he ordered the program's chief actuary, Richard Foster, to withhold information from Congress about how much the new Medicare law would cost; however, Scully said he did not threaten to fire Foster if he did not follow the directive. Last week, Foster gave lawmakers documents showing that federal payments to private health insurance plans under the new Medicare law could cost more than triple what Congress assumed when it passed the bill last year. Lawmakers had requested the cost estimate several months before the bill passed, but Foster said Scully threatened to fire him if he handed over the data.

White House spokesman Thomas Duffy said no one instructed either Scully or Foster to keep information from Congress. But Duffy admitted that White House officials were aware of Foster's cost estimates while the bill was being debated. Lawmakers, including Republicans, have been critical of the Bush administration for keeping the information secret.

Posted 03-23-2004 6:09 PM EDT

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Evidence Supports Medicare Actuary's Claims

Since Medicare chief actuary Richard Foster broke his silence about being warned not to reveal his higher price tag for the prescription drug benefit bill, new evidence has surfaced to supports his claim. A House Democratic health policy aide received a fax dated June 11, 2003, that pegged the cost of the legislation at $551.5 billion over 10 years, The New York Times reported. The aide, Cybele Bjorkland, said she doesn't know who sent the fax, but she had been trying to obtain Foster's estimate, which was substantially higher than $400 billion Congress had figured. Foster refused to give up his numbers and said he could be fired if he did so, Bjorkland said. She confronted Foster's boss, Thomas Scully, who told her, "I'll fire him so fast his head will spin," if Foster gave her what she wanted, Bjorkland recounted to the Times.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) printed a copy of an e-mail to Foster that warned he could be "accused of insubordination" if he shared information with Congress about the legislation without authorization from his politically appointed bosses.

Posted 03-18-2004 5:51 PM EDT

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War on Terror Trumps Public Access

Since 9/11, the Bush administration has expanded the number of officials who can hide records from public view, part of what experts are calling the most expansive assault on open government in the nation's history, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. The newspaper also cited several examples of government secrecy that appear to be outside the scope of national security, including the Federal Aviation Administration's removal from the Internet of records involving enforcement actions taken against airlines, pilots and mechanics.

The White House has used the Sept. 11 attacks "as an excuse to close the doors of government," Rick Blum of OMB Watch, a nonprofit group that monitors government regulatory activity, told the Journal-Constitution. And corporations are following the Bush administration's lead, trying to shield potentially embarrassing information from the public, he said.

Posted 03-16-2004 1:27 PM EDT

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Official Told to Withhold Medicare Costs

Bush administration officials threatened to fire a chief analyst of Medicare costs last year if he told lawmakers that the prescription drug bill favored by the White House would be more expensive than Congress was led to believe, The Washington Post reported. Richard Foster, a nonpartisan Department of Health and Human Services official who has served as Medicare's chief actuary for nine years, told the Post he nearly resigned in protest because he thought the White House was harming the public interest by keeping cost information secret. "Certainly, Congress did not have all the information they might have wanted, or that we had," Foster said.

Then-HHS Administrator Thomas Scully told Foster last spring and summer that he would be fired if he complied with requests from Republican and Democratic lawmakers to provide them with cost estimates related to the prescription drug benefit bill, Foster said. Congressional Democrats have called for an ethics investigation.

Posted 03-15-2004 6:04 PM EDT

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Bush May Allow Longer 9/11 Interview

The White House said President Bush would submit to questioning by the commission investigating 9/11 for more than the hour he earlier agreed to, Reuters reported. Although the interview is only scheduled to last one hour, "the president of course is going to answer all the questions they want to raise," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. Bush was criticized for refusing to submit to more than an hour of questioning, especially after his campaign used 9/11 images in TV ads.

After recently obtaining a requested two-month extension, the commission is due to complete its inquiry in July.

Posted 03-15-2004 4:41 PM EDT

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Government Will Keep Key Industry Data Secret

Government officials have cut a deal with businesses: Tell us where you're vulnerable and we'll keep it under Uncle Sam's hat. Starting tomorrow, companies critical to the nation's infrastructure, such as chemical companies, electric utilities and railroads, can send the Department of Homeland Security information about their vulnerabilities to terrorism without fear that it will be disclosed publicly, The Washington Post reported. The Homeland Security Act gives the department authority to keep data voluntarily provided by businesses secret.

Some environmental and open-records advocates are concerned that corporations will use the rules to evade federal enforcement of health and safety rules, the Post said. "It's naive to think that we won't have bad actors in industry" who take advantage of the protections, Sean Moulton of OMB Watch, a nonprofit group that monitors government regulatory activity, told the Post.

Posted 02-19-2004 11:19 AM EDT

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Is Pentagon Keeping Lid on Military Suicides?

The Defense Department acknowledged last month that the suicide rate among soldiers serving in Iraq is about 20 percent higher than average. Twenty-two soldiers have committed suicide, but that number might be higher, The Washington Post reported. The Pentagon sent investigators to Iraq last fall to check the mental health of its troops. Their findings haven't be released yet. A Defense Department official pegged the number of suicides at 13.5 per 100,000 troops. But that number doesn't include cases that are under investigation or suicides committed by troops who have returned to the United States from Iraq. Two soldiers reportedly killed themselves while undergoing treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Stephen Robinson, head of a nonprofit advocacy group for veterans and soldiers, visits the hospital on a regular basis. He told the Post that the Pentagon is keeping a lid on the suicides. "They just covered it up," he said.

Posted 02-19-2004 10:46 AM EDT

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9/11 Panel's Deal Angers Some Members, Victims' Families

The independent commission investigating 9/11 won't subpoena the White House to gain access to intelligence documents. Instead, in a move that angered some members of the panel and victims' families, the commission agreed to accept only a 17-page summary of the presidential briefing documents it had sought, The Washington Post reported. Also under terms of the deal, only four representatives of the 10-member panel were allowed to sift through the documents.

"You either say you didn't have warning prior to 9/11 and you let us see the documents, or you shouldn't claim that," Democratic commission member Timothy J. Roemer told the Post.

Posted 02-11-2004 12:12 PM EDT

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Bush Reverses Course on 9/11 Probe

In a departure from earlier statements, President Bush endorsed giving the commission investigating 9/11 more time to finish its work, the Associated Press reported. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States was established by Congress to study the nation's preparedness before Sept. 11, 2001, and the government's response to the attacks, and to make recommendations for guarding against similar disasters. The panel was scheduled to complete its report by May 27, but panel members asked Congress for a two-month extension.

Bush had resisted that request for months. White House aides feared that delaying the commission's final report would result in a potentially damaging assessment of the administration's handling of pre-attack intelligence in the heat of a presidential campaign, the AP said.


Posted 02-04-2004 5:00 PM EDT

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White House Wants 9/11 Panel to Wrap up Probe

The commission investigating 9/11 has requested more time to finish its work, but the Bush administration wants the panel to wrap up its probe before the presidential campaign begins in earnest, The Washington Post reported. The panel, which is required to issue its complete report by May 27, is requesting at least two more months. That has opened the White House to charges that it is playing political games instead of assisting the commission. Earlier this week the panel released information about missed opportunities to stop the highjackings by U.S. border authorities. The White House also hasn't agreed to the panel's request to directly question President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney about 9/11.

Sen. John McCain told the Post that he will sponsor legislation that will extend the commission's deadline to January 2005.

Posted 01-30-2004 3:46 PM EDT

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No Sunshine for Texas Democrats

The Justice Department has refused to release an internal memo about a Republican redistricting plan in Texas, The Washington Post reported. In the U.S. House of Representatives the Texas delegation is split evenly at 16 seats apiece. Republicans are likely to gain control of seven more House seats after redistricting. Texas Democrats in the House have sought access to the Justice Department's legal opinion approving the GOP plan. The Justice Department told Texas lawmakers last week that it would not release the documents because they contain "predecisional deliberative material" that officials argue is exempt from public information laws. The lead attorney for the Democrats appealed the department's decision, alleging that officials don't want to release the documents because career attorneys recommended the department reject the redistricting plan. Democrats contend that the plan violates a federal voting rights law because it eliminates two districts in which minorities make up a majority of the voters.

Posted 01-22-2004 4:50 PM EDT

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Supreme Court Silent on Secret Detentions

The Supreme Court declined to decide whether the administration can legally keep secret basic data about hundreds of foreigners arrested and detained following 9/11. Lawyers for the ACLU, which asked the Court to hear its appeal of an adverse lower court ruling, said that the government sealed immigration records and omitted detainees' names from jail rosters, among other tactics, to make sure details of hundreds of arrests remained secret. Such secrecy was justified, the administration claimed, because releasing details could give terrorists information about the 9/11 investigation, although according to the Associated Press, none of the more than 700 detainees was charged as a terrorist.

Posted 01-13-2004 12:29 PM EDT

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Attacking the messenger?

The Bush spin machine shifted into fulll attack mode after former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill harshly criticized the administration's justifications for and judgment on tax breaks for the wealthy, steel tariffs, the war in Iraq and other policy decisions in interviews with "60 Minutes" and Time magazine and in upcoming book. Bush, he said, is like "a blind man in a room full of deaf people," and began planning regime change in Iraq during the first days of his presidency.

The administration is fighting back, USA Today reports. Yesterday the inspector general of the Treasury Department was asked to look into whether O'Neill - who was fired from his Cabinet post in 2002 - had released confidential material. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said O'Neill's publicity "appears to be more about trying to justify personal views and opinions."

Posted 01-13-2004 12:26 PM EDT

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The Other Shoe Drops

Like the 620 members of the U.S. Park Police, we've been waiting for the other shoe to drop after Chief Teresa Chambers was first reprimanded and then suspended for stating publicly that her department was understaffed. The National Park Service has notified her that she will be fired for improperly lobbying Congress and disclosing secret budget details, The Washington Post reported. Her attorney said Chambers will defend herself against the charges, citing her First Amendment rights and the Whistleblower Protection Act.

All this drama started in early December when Chambers told reporters that she was forced to curtail patrols beyond the national Mall because an unfunded Interior Department mandate required four officers to be posted at the Washington Monument and the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. "It seems like a big overreaction. It seems like it puts [federal officials] in jeopardy of being accused of ... retaliating against a whistleblower," Elaine Kaplan, former head of the U.S. Official of Special Counsel, told the Post.

Posted 12-19-2003 11:46 AM EDT

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U.S. Citizen Can't Be Held as Enemy Combatant

A federal appeals court ruled today that President Bush doesn't have the authority to detain an American citizen seized on U.S. soil as an enemy combatant, CNN.com reported. By a 2-1 vote, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Jose Padilla must be released from military custody within 30 days. For the past year and a half, Padilla has been held in a South Carolina naval brig. Sen. Lindsey Graham recently questioned the Bush administration's decision to keep the dirty-bomb suspect locked up without access to the courts.

Critics have argued that the administration's new anti-terrorism policies, which are cloaked in secrecy, are ripe for abuse. Legal experts told CNN that the Padilla case may wind up in the Supreme Court.

Posted 12-18-2003 2:55 PM EDT

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No One Knows What Goes on Behind Closed Doors

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the White House argue why it shouldn't have to disclose documents from Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, conservative New York Times columnist William Safire asks, "Are Republicans out of their collective mind?" Not only is it wrong to ask the High Court "to erect a high barrier to finding out who is advising whom about the public's business behind closed doors," Safire writes, but it also smacks of hypocrisy because Republicans relentlessly criticized the Clinton administration for its executive privilege claims during the Paula Jones saga. Safire calls out President Bush for going "all out to keep his administration's energy deliberations from public scrutiny." And he has some advice for the White House: If "freedom" is the word Bush and Cheney want as the hallmark of their administration, they should begin with freedom of information.

Posted 12-18-2003 2:37 PM EDT

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