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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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White House Web Cleaning

The White House has gotten a jump on its spring cleaning by surreptitiously removing or altering material on government Web sites that leave smudge marks on the Bush administration, The Washington Post reported. Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, rankled White House officials when he said earlier this year that Iraq reconstruction wouldn't cost taxpayers more than $1.7 billion, a gross understatement. The transcript and links to his remarks have vanished into cyberspace, the Post said.

Other Web scrubbing has been more subtle. When U.S. casualties in Iraq started increasing after President Bush's May 1 victory declaration, the White House edited the original headline on its Web site. It once read "President Bush Announces Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended," but officials added the word "Major" before combat.

Posted 12-18-2003 9:57 AM EDT

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Secrecy Shrouds Potential War Profiteering

Are Halliburton and other American contractors in Iraq engaged in war profiteering? Recent media reports about Halliburton's expensive gasoline imports that may have lead to a $61 million overcharge raise enough questions to warrant a broad, independent investigation, writes Paul Krugman in a New York Times column. "The biggest curb on profiteering in government contracts," Krugman writes, "is the threat of sunshine ... Yet it's hard to think of a time when U.S. government dealings have been less subject to scrutiny." Since 9/11, the current administration has used national security to justify its secrecy, but it really began the day President Bush took office, Krugman writes.

Posted 12-16-2003 12:51 PM EDT

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High Court Takes Cheney Secret Energy Task Force Case

The U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on Vice President Dick Cheney's refusal to disclose documents from his secret meetings with energy industry executives, including Enron Corp.'s Ken Lay, Reuters reported. The Sierra Club and Judicial Watch sued in 2001 to find out the names and positions of members of Cheney's energy task force. The task force helped draft the Bush administration's national energy policy, which called for more oil and gas drilling and an expansion of nuclear power. More than a year ago, a federal judge ruled that the White House must either produce documents about the energy task force, or provide a detailed list of the documents it was withholding, and why.

The Supreme Court will hear the case in spring 2004, and Public Citizen's Alan Morrison will likely argue the case on behalf of Sierra Club. Morrison opposed Supreme Court review of this case.

Posted 12-15-2003 2:26 PM EDT

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License to Over Bill in Iraq?

The Defense Department has discovered that Halliburton Inc., formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, may have overbilled the U.S. government $61 million on a contract to supply fuel to Iraq, The New York Times reported. The government would have also overpaid Halliburton $67 million on a contract to operate U.S. military dining halls if Pentagon auditors hadn't questioned the arrangement, according to a draft audit. This has raised more concerns about the "no-bid" Iraq reconstruction contracts secretly doled out to Halliburton by the Bush administration prior to the war. Before Congress approved President Bush's $20 billion request for reconstruction spending in Iraq, lawmakers insisted on more transparency in the bidding process.

The administration has refused to provide even basic information about the open-ended Halliburton contracts valued at potentially $15.6 billion. Public Citizen filed a Freedom of Information Act request but was denied; it is planning an appeal.

Posted 12-12-2003 1:38 PM EDT

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Bomb Suspect's Status Vexes Republican Senator

While touring military bases in South Carolina, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham questioned the Bush administration's decision to keep dirty-bomb suspect Jose Padilla locked up in the Naval Consolidated Brig with no access to attorneys or the courts, The Post and Courier reported. "He's an American citizen who was arrested in the United States," Graham said of Padilla, who has been held in Charleston since June 2002. "Because he's a citizen, I plan to talk with the attorney general about him." Graham said Attorney General John Ashcroft "can't change the rules" regarding due process for criminal suspects.

Not so, says the Bush administration, which considers Padilla an "enemy combatant" who can be held without access to lawyers and without formal criminal charges being filed. This new system, which is cloaked in secrecy, is ripe for abuse, charge critics of the administration and the controversial Patriot Act.

Posted 12-12-2003 11:30 AM EDT

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