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Judge Upholds Secrecy Claim

The White House does not have to release to the public records related to millions of missing e-mails, a federal judge ruled June 16.

According to The Washington Post, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said the White House’s Office of Administration (OA) is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

The ruling was made in a lawsuit filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). CREW said it is appealing the decision, according to the Post.

The ruling means that the White House can continue to keep the extent of its e-mail problems under wraps.

“We are disappointed in the ruling and believe the judge reached the wrong legal conclusion,” CREW executive director Melanie Sloan said in a statement, as quoted by the Post. “The Bush administration is using the legal system to prevent the American people from discovering the truth about the millions of missing White House e-mails. The fact is, until CREW asked for documents pertaining to this problem, the Office of Administration routinely processed FOIA requests. Only because the administration has so much to hide here, has the White House taken the unprecedented position that OA is not subject to the FOIA.”

Posted 06-16-2008 4:40 PM EDT

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Taking the White House to Task

A June 4 New York Times editorial  excoriates the Bush administration for playing politics with climate change, hiding and manipulating scientific information about global warming.

Last week, NASA's inspector general found that the agency's political appointees in the public affairs office attempted to restrict reporter access to James Hansen, NASA's leading climate scientist - who had criticized the administration's refusal to address climate change, according to the Times

“The administration long ago secured a special place in history for bending science to its political ends,” the editorial says. “One costly result is that this nation has lost seven years in a struggle in which time is not on anyone's side.”

Posted 06-04-2008 12:43 PM EDT

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It’s Time to Make Rove Talk

Karl Rove - former political mastermind in the Bush White House - has been known to work behind the scenes.

But it looks like his time in the spotlight - on Capitol Hill, before the House Judiciary Committee - is finally approaching.

The New York Times editorialized June 2  that the committee, which has subpoenaed Rove to testify, “should do everything in its power to see that he [testifies] and that he answers all of its questions.”

This comes after the editorial notes that, during an appearance on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Rove did not “directly” deny his involvement in the Justice Department’s decision to prosecute former Democratic Alabama Gov. Donald Siegelman, who was convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to more than seven years. According to The Times, Siegelman had been the Democrats’ best shot of retrieving Alabama’s governorship - until his indictment.

Was the U.S. justice system manipulated to bring about a politically motivated outcome? It’s up to the House Judiciary Committee to find out.

It’s finally time for the behind-the-scenes guy to step forward.

Posted 06-02-2008 1:06 PM EDT

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What Will It Take ...

To make Karl Rove appear before the House Judiciary Committee? Rove, Bush’s former chief political adviser, already has refused the committee’s invitation to appear voluntarily.

Now, according to The New York Times, he’s been served a subpoena from the committee. But his lawyer, Robert D. Luskin, said Rove was not going to appear because the White House told him not to. (Remember, Rove is no longer working for the White House.)

Committee Democrats want Rove to appear before them so they can ask questions about the controversial decisions to dismiss several federal prosecutors and to prosecute former Democratic Alabama Gov. Donald E. Siegelman.

And if Rove refuses to testify? House Democrats are going to have to consider issuing a contempt citation, the Times said.

Posted 06-02-2008 12:48 PM EDT

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The Bush administration’s double top-secret trade deal

From Joe Newman at CitizenVox.org:

So, journalist and blogger Ed Brayton was a little curious after the U.S. government struck a deal with the European Union and other countries that compensates them in exchange for the U.S. passing online gambling laws that interfere with international trade as governed by the World Trade Organization. Brayton, who also happens to be an online poker player, was curious what exactly the U.S. was giving up in exchange. You should be too, since it is rumored that the compensation could be worth billions of dollars. The only problem is that the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative refused to release details of the compensation agreement to Brayton, claiming it was a matter of national security. I’m not sure whether they did this with a straight face. Public Citizen filed suit this week on behalf of Brayton. The suit contends the Bush administration is illegally withholding the details of the compensation deal.

Brayton has written about the government’s ludicrous contention on his blog, Dispatches from the Culture Wars:

"Yes, they are actually claiming that this document, which has nothing even remotely do to with anything that could conceivably, in Dick Cheney’s wildest imagination, have anything to do with national security, has been properly classified. Americans, according to this administration, have no right to know how many billions of our tax dollars they’ve spent with no legislative authorization whatsoever in order to buy the cooperation of other nations and allow them to continue to violate the rights of American adults by preventing them from gambling in the privacy of their own home."

And here’s what Public Citizen attorney Bonnie I. Robin-Vergeer said about the secret deal:

"Americans have a right to know what kinds of trade concessions the U.S. government is granting other countries, especially when those deals have a significant impact on domestic policy and may be worth billions of dollars. The Bush administration’s decision to withhold the agreement under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has more to do with its desire to prevent public and congressional scrutiny of the settlement before it is enshrined in a new WTO schedule than it does with national security. FOIA requires the agreement’s release."

You can read the complaint here.

Posted 05-21-2008 11:09 AM EDT

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Promises, Promises

Despite its promises, the Republican National Committee (RNC) no longer will try to restore missing e-mails sent by White House officials on RNC accounts, according to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, during a Feb. 26 hearing.

White House officials - including former presidential adviser Karl Rove - had used RNC accounts for government business, even though rules stated that they had to use official channels to conduct government business, according to the Feb. 27 Washington Post. (Administration officials have acknowledged such practices.)

The RNC had told the committee previously that it was trying to restore e-mails from 2001 to 2003, when the RNC’s policy was to purge all e-mails after 30 days.

Somehow, the RNC had a change of heart.

“The result is a potentially enormous gap in the historical record,” Waxman said, including the prelude to the Iraq war.

Posted 02-27-2008 12:44 PM EDT

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Army Restricts Access to Unclassified Information

The Army has closed public access to a digital library that contains unclassified field and technical information, according to The Washington Post.

On Feb. 6, the Reimer Digital Library was moved behind a firewall, protected by a password.

The Army says it is limiting access to comply with Defense Department policies for tightening the security of military Web sites and to keep better track of who is accessing these sites.

However, the Project on Government Secrecy, a program within the nonprofit Federation of American Scientists, is hoping to restore access to the documents. The group filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on Feb. 13 for all of the unclassified, publicly releasable documents in the library’s collection so it can post the material on the group’s Web site.

“They can configure Army Web sites however they like,” the Project on Government Secrecy's director, Steven Aftergood, is quoted in the Post as saying. “What they cannot do is to withhold information from the public that is subject to release under the FOIA. … What we really want to do is to persuade them to adopt a reasonable policy of openness, not to provide an alternative - unless we have to.”

Posted 02-21-2008 12:49 PM EDT

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Public Health Agency Suppresses Hazardous Substances Report

Same story, different cast: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is blocking the release of a report that studies environmental hazards in the eight Great Lakes states.

The study, originally set for release last July, warns that more than nine million people living in more than two dozen “areas of concern” - including those living in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee - could face increased health risks from exposure to contaminants such as pesticides, lead, mercury or other pollutants, according to The Center for Public Integrity.

The government has said the report’s quality was below expectations and was still being reviewed. (Dozens of experts have reviewed drafts of the report since 2004.) And the individual who oversaw the study has been demoted after pushing to release the Great Lakes study and other reports.

“It’s not good because it’s inconvenient,” said Canadian biologist Michael Gilbertson, a Canadian biologist who was a peer reviewer for the report. “The whole problem with all this kind of work is wrapped up in that word ‘injury.’ If you have injury, that implies liability. Liability, of course, implies damages, legal processes, and costs of remedial action. The governments, frankly, in both countries are so heavily aligned with, particularly, the chemical industry, that the worst amongst the bureaucracies is that they really do not want any evidence of effect or injury to be allowed out there.”

Posted 02-18-2008 1:17 PM EDT

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House Issues Contempt Citations Against White House Aides

On Feb. 14, the House of Representatives approved contempt citations against White House aides for refusing to cooperate with an inquiry into allegations that political motives were behind the firing of U.S. attorneys in 2006.

The citations were issued against White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers. Bolten’s contempt resolution notes that he has refused to turn over subpoenaed documents and e-mails sought by the House Judiciary Committee in the investigation, according to The Washington Post.

Miers is cited because she refused to testify after she was subpoenaed to come before the committee last summer.

For almost a year, Bush has not allowed any current or former member of his West Wing staff to testify in the investigation. Bush, citing executive privilege, has offered to allow staffers to testify only if the testimony is taken without transcripts and under oath.

“This is beyond arrogance. This is hubris taken to the ultimate degree,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Posted 02-18-2008 1:14 PM EDT

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Three's a charm

Three’s a charm, unless you’re the Internal Revenue Service, that is. The agency is flouting three court orders requiring it to provide a nationally recognized researcher with statistical data on how the agency enforces the nation’s tax laws.

On Feb. 11, Public Citizen, along with the Seattle, Wash. law firm Davis Wright Tremaine filed a lawsuit on behalf of the researcher, Susan B. Long and her organization, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

Posted 02-15-2008 5:36 PM EDT

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Senators Introduce Bill for Oversight of State Secrets Privilege

It’s no surprise that the Bush administration wants to invoke the state secrets privilege in court when it can. Plainly speaking, this White House loves its secrets.

But a couple of influential senators are trying to provide some oversight for the use of the state secrets privilege, which allows the government to prevent sensitive national security information from being publicly disclosed as evidence in court.

Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) introduced on Jan. 22 the State Secrets Protection Act (S. 2533). The bill would require courts in civil lawsuits to look at the evidence for which the administration is trying to use the privilege and assess whether the administration’s assertions are valid, according to a statement from Kennedy. Currently, there is no law giving courts guidelines for the use of the states secret privilege in civil cases.

“When federal courts accept the executive branch’s state secrets claims as absolute, our system of checks and balances breaks down,” Kennedy said in his statement. “By refusing to consider key pieces of evidence, or by dismissing lawsuits outright without considering any evidence at all, courts give the executive branch the ability to violate American laws and constitutional rights without any accountability or oversight, and innocent victims are left unable to obtain justice.”

Posted 01-30-2008 6:25 PM EDT

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White House E-mails Go Missing

Missing: 473 days’ worth of White House e-mails.

Yes, for hundreds of days between 2003 and 2005, the White House has no archives of e-mail messages for one or more of its offices, according to the summary of an internal White House study released by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) that was covered in The Washington Post.

Early in the Bush administration, the White House threw out the custom archiving system the Clinton administration had adopted under a federal court order, according to the Post. Instead, the Bush administration has been using an inadequate e-mail archiving system.

According to the Post, no presidential office e-mails were archived on Dec. 17, 20 or 21 in 2003, which was the week after Saddam Hussein’s capture. And no e-mails were archived in the vice president’s office for four days in early October 2003 - dates that match up with the beginning of the Justice Department probe into the leak of a CIA officer’s identity, according to a summary of the White House study.

Of course, the White House is disputing the credibility of its own study. White House spokesman Tony Fratto said there was no evidence that e-mails are missing.

Guess the White House study doesn’t count as evidence …  

Posted 01-22-2008 5:46 PM EDT

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Bush Secrecy Efforts Crumbling

At long last, the pillars of the administration’s secrecy are beginning to crumble somewhat.

According to a Jan. 13 Washington Post story:

On Jan. 8, a federal magistrate ordered the administration to reveal whether it had backup copies of missing White House e-mails;

  • In December, a federal judge ruled that presidential visitor lists - which Bush had kept secret - are public records;
  • On Dec. 31, Bush signed a bill speeding the release of documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act;
  • In October, the Directorate of National Intelligence released the $43.5 billion intelligence budget - the disclosure of which was required under a bill passed by Congress in early 2007.

“The administration has brought these challenges on itself,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. She favored disclosing the intelligence budget. “By trying to keep secret information that doesn’t need to be secret, it invites skepticism of all of its secrecy claims.”

The Post story does note that the administration has been victorious in its quest for secrecy. For instance, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court rejected in December a request by the American Civil Liberties Union to release documents on the warrantless wiretapping program.

Such losses are terrible and contribute to the atmosphere of secrecy. But the victories - which are increasing in number - are encouraging.

Posted 01-22-2008 5:32 PM EDT

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Senior Bush Lawyers Discussed CIA Videotapes

Top White House lawyers were involved in discussions with the CIA about whether to destroy videotapes showing secret interrogations of two Al Qaeda operatives, according to a Dec. 19 New York Times story.

Unnamed officials are saying these lawyers were involved in the discussions to a much greater degree than the administration had said. Those who took part, according to the officials, included Alberto R. Gonzales (White House counsel until early 2005), David S. Addington (former counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney and now his chief of staff), John B. Bellinger III (senior lawyer at the National Security Council until January 2005) and Harriet E. Miers (successor to Gonzales as White House counsel).

And while previous reports said some administration officials advised against destroying the tapes, which occurred in November 2005, the Times story notes some conflicting recollections of what actually happened.

“One former senior intelligence official with direct knowledge of the matter said there was ‘vigorous sentiment’ to destroy the tapes among some top White House officials,” according to the newspaper.

But other officials said no one at the White House wanted to destroy the tapes. “Those officials acknowledged, however, that no White House lawyer gave a direct order to preserve the tapes of advised that destroying them would be illegal,” according to the Times.

The plot thickens …

Posted 12-19-2007 11:53 AM EDT

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Congress Passes Bill to Strengthen Freedom of Information Act

Finally, government transparency wins a battle!

On Dec. 18, Congress gave its OK to a bill that would speed up the sometimes years-long process of obtaining public documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The law already says that agencies must respond within 20 days of a FOIA request. But in reality, the process can drag out for months, or even years. This bill would require public tracking numbers to be assigned to requests. And if an agency exceeds the 20-day deadline, the agency could not charge FOIA requesters for research or copying costs, according to The Washington Post.

“In an era of increased government secrecy, we cannot postpone reforming the very act that keeps our government open to the people whose government this is,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). “FOIA helps make government accountable and responsive to the people.”

If you’re keeping score, today it’s Transparency: 1. Secrecy: 0.

 

Posted 12-19-2007 11:51 AM EDT

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Court Keeps Decisions About Warrantless Wiretapping Program Under Wraps

A federal court that generally operates in secrecy is, not surprisingly, keeping secret the details of the courts decisions on the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program, according to a Dec. 12 New York Times story.

Two recent decisions by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s decisions are known, but the reasoning behind them is not. One, a January ruling, allowed the administration to operate the program under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. A May ruling was more restrictive, leading the administration to request that Congress change the act.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asked the court to release the opinions that detail the two rulings because the public had a right to know the information during a recent congressional debate on the issue. A federal court’s interpretation of federal law should not be kept secret, contends Jameel Jaffer, director of the National Security Project at the ACLU.

In his Dec. 11 ruling, Judge John D. Bates, who sits on the surveillance court and the Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., agreed that enhanced public scrutiny could provide an additional safeguard against mistakes, overreaching and abuse.

But that does not outweigh the need or right of the government to keep the material classified, Bates said.

Posted 12-12-2007 12:20 PM EDT

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CIA Destroys Videotapes Showing ?Severe Interrogation Techniques’

In 2005, the CIA destroyed at least two videotapes showing the agency’s interrogation of two al-Qaeda operatives, according to a Dec. 7 New York Times story.

Why destroy the tapes? Because the agency was concerned about the legal risks of the video, which showed CIA operatives using “severe interrogation techniques” on terrorism suspects.

“The destruction of the tapes raises questions about whether agency officials withheld information from Congress, the courts and the Sept. 11 commission about aspects of the [agency’s secret detention] program,” according to the Times.

After the Times told the CIA that it was preparing to publish an article on the tapes’ destruction, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the CIA director, told employees that the agency had acted “in line with the law.”

According to Hayden’s statement, the tapes were a “serious security risk,” and if they got out to the public, they would have exposed agency officials “and their families to retaliation from Al Qaeda and its sympathizers.”

Hayden also said leaders of congressional oversight committees were informed about the tapes and told about the decision to destroy them. But Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who was the House Intelligence Committee chairman between 2004 and 2006, and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the committee’s top Democrat between 2002 and 2006, said they were not told about the decision to destroy the tapes.

In fact, Harman said that she told CIA officials years ago that destroying interrogation tapes would be a “bad idea,” according to the Times.

“How in the world could the CIA claim that these tapes were not relevant to a legislative inquiry?” she said. “This episode reinforces my view that the CIA should not be conducting a separate interrogations program.”

 

 

Posted 12-07-2007 5:43 PM EDT

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White House Secrets: The Abramoff Edition

The Secret Service is living up to its name: The agency has identified some highly sensitive documents related to White House visits by imprisoned former superlobbyist Jack Abramoff that, it says, cannot be released to the public, according to a Dec. 2 Associated Press story.

The Secret Service’s concerns would prevent the production of the documents in a civil lawsuit, even though the Bush administration agreed last year to produce all relevant    records about Abramoff’s visits to the White House.

“This is an extraordinary development and it raises the specter that there were additional contacts with President Bush or other high White House officials that have yet to be disclosed,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, the conservative watchdog group that filed the suit. “We’ve alleged that the government has committed misconduct in this litigation, and frankly this is more fuel for that fire.”

Extraordinary development, indeed.

 

Posted 12-04-2007 1:03 PM EDT

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'Early Warning' Data Kept Out of Public's Reach

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Oct. 19 released a final rule thwarting public access to early warning information about motor vehicle safety hazards. 

Despite losing in the courts, the administration insists on trying again to produce a rule that will keep the public in the dark about potential defects and other safety hazards in the cars they drive.

The final rule released Oct. 19 restricts public access to much of the "early warning data" submitted by the auto and tire industry under the 2000 Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act (TREAD Act) to assist in the early identification of motor vehicle safety defects.

LEARN MORE. 

Posted 10-22-2007 10:16 AM EDT

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Court to Bush: Secretive Tactics Are Illegal

President Bush’s executive order to limit public access to presidential records violates the Presidential Records Act, a federal court ruled Monday in a suit filed by Public Citizen. In an attempt to keep secret records of former presidents and vice presidents, Bush’s order had wrested away control from the National Archives and essentially given office holders veto power over release of their papers.

Learn more. 

Read the opinion.

Posted 10-02-2007 3:22 PM EDT

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