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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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


'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.


Posted 10-22-2007 10:16 AM EDT


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


Bush Secrecy Reaches the Senate

Oh, what a tangled web of secrecy Republicans are weaving: On Sept. 20, The Dallas Morning News reported that a Republican senator is secretly blocking a bill reversing a presidential executive order that allows former presidents to seal their records for an indefinite period of time.

“We need to smoke out whoever it is,” said Lee White, executive director of the National Coalition for History, one of the legislation’s leading advocates, in the newspaper. “Maybe somebody at the White House called a Republican senator and said put a hold on it.”

Bush’s executive order allows former presidents, vice presidents or their representatives (if they are incapacitated or deceased) to block the release of their records, potentially shielding important information from the public.

Public Citizen and other groups filed a lawsuit in 2001 challenging the executive order. The lawsuit is still pending.

Posted 09-21-2007 4:34 PM EDT


Outing the Energy Insiders Given Access to Cheney, Staff

The Washington Post  landed a big scoop on July 18: A former White House official gave the newspaper the Bush administration’s confidential list showing how many energy industry insiders Vice President Dick Cheney and his aides met with before writing up the administration’s energy task force report.  

In total, about 300 groups and individuals, many from the energy industry, met with task force staff members, according to the list compiled in 2001. Some of the groups and individuals met with Cheney.

The attempt to obtain the list of meeting attendees has been ongoing for years. In 2004, in response to a lawsuit filed to shake loose the list, the Supreme Court agreed with the administration’s belief that its internal deliberations should not be released to public scrutiny, according to the Post.

But, in Washington, D.C., things just don’t stay secret for very long. Now we know that such companies as Constellation Energy Group and the American Petroleum Institute   had face time with Bush administration officials - and that environmental advocates got just one cursory meeting.

“I never knew why they fought so hard to keep it secret,” Charles A. Samuels, outside counsel to the Association of Home Appliances Manufacturers (which participated in a meeting on tax credits for “super-efficient” appliances), told the Post. “I am sure the vast majority of the meetings were very policy-oriented meetings - exactly what should take place.”

Posted 07-18-2007 1:46 PM EDT


Former Surgeon General Says Administration Silenced Him

More evidence has surfaced that the Bush administration is silencing officials and other representatives whose views, while scientifically correct, do not mesh with its political agenda.

This time, former surgeon general Richard H. Carmona, who served under Bush from 2002 to 2006, said he was silenced on issues such as the debate over whether the government should fund embryonic stem cell research, something Bush opposes, according to a story published July 11 in The Washington Post.

“Anything that doesn’t fit into the political appointees’ ideological, theological or political agenda is often ignored, marginalized or simply buried,” Carmona said. “The problem with this approach is that in public health, as in a democracy, there is nothing worse than ignoring science or marginalizing the voice of science for reasons driven by changing political winds.”

Carmona made the statement when testifying July 10 before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee’s chairman, said Congress needs to protect the surgeon general’s office from such politicization.

Congress should find ways to prevent the administration from silencing those who just want to get facts about anything - from public health to the environment - out to the public.

Posted 07-11-2007 4:52 PM EDT


FDA Officials Kept Blank Calendars

If you have been wanting to know who two top officials at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have been meeting with in recent years, you would be out of luck.

Despite the fact that their jobs involve regular sit-downs with drug company executives, lobbyists and others, the public calendars of Dr. Janet Woodcock and Dr. Steven Galson have been almost completely blank, according to The Associated Press.

Woodcock’s calendar had only three listings between January 1999 and December 2006. That’s strange, because during that time, she was the director of the center for drug evaluation and research and then deputy commissioner for operations. Both positions required her meetings to be listed.

Galson, who took over the drug chief position from Woodcock full-time in July 2005, had no listings.

The FDA says it simply was an administrative oversight (and began to fill in the calendar, after being contacted by congressional staff).

But Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight and investigations subcommittee, said this is an example of the FDA’s lack of accountability.

Posted 07-02-2007 3:59 PM EDT


Cheney Battles Executive Branch Agency Trying to Collect Classified Data

Vice President Dick Cheney must love his secrets. He doesn’t even like to share with his own team.

Check out the latest: Apparently, Cheney has exempted himself from the PRESIDENTIAL order setting up procedures for protecting classified information, according to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

For the past four years, Cheney’s office has refused to cooperate with a National Archives and Records Administration office charged with monitoring classification in the executive branch, according to stories in the June 22 Washington Post and New York Times. 

Not only did the vice president’s office not comply with a routine annual request for data on staff classification of internal documents, but in 2004, it also blocked an on-site inspection of records that other executive branch agencies go through, according to a letter to the vice president sent by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

And after the Archives office continued to complain about the matter, Cheney’s staff proposed eliminating the office.

“I know the vice president wants to operate with unprecedented secrecy,” Waxman told The New York Times. “But this is absurd. This order is designed to keep classified information safe. His argument is really that he’s not part of the executive branch, so he doesn’t have to comply.”

Posted 06-22-2007 12:44 PM EDT


CIA Tries to Withhold Information That Is Already Public

The CIA has refused to allow Valerie Wilson, who was outed as an intelligence operative after her husband criticized the Bush administration, to publish her memoir because it discusses how long she worked for the agency, according to The New York Times.

The CIA says the information, which was classified, still is classified - even though it has been published in the Congressional Record. For that reason, the agency says, Wilson can’t put it in her book.

So Wilson filed a lawsuit yesterday in a New York federal court.

“The CIA’s effort to classify public domain information is an unreasonable attempt at prior restraint of publication and a violation of our First Amendment rights,” said Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for planned book publisher - and fellow plaintiff in the lawsuit suit - Simon & Schuster, in the Times.

The CIA is sticking to its position, saying the information’s disclosure was a mistake.


Posted 06-01-2007 3:48 PM EDT


Public Citizen Argues for Release of Hepatitis B Vaccine Information

Giving the parents of a boy who was disabled by a hepatitis B vaccine information about the use of the vaccine in the United States would not cause competitive harm to manufacturers Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, Public Citizen has told a federal court.

On May 23, Public Citizen attorney Michael Kirkpatrick argued before a federal court in Miami that the parents’ Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a breakdown by lot of the doses of the vaccine should be granted.

Access to this information would allow the public and independent researchers to determine whether particular vaccine lots have a higher rate of adverse events. Adverse events are reported to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but without knowing how many doses from a certain lot have been used, researchers cannot calculate and compare the adverse event rate for the vaccines.

In March 2003, plaintiffs Dr. and Mrs. Robert Sharkey of Fort Myers, Fla., filed a FOIA request for information on the net number of doses in each lot of hepatitis B vaccine used in the United States. The request was filed on behalf of their son, 11-year-old Ryan Reed Sharkey, who is permanently disabled after having a severe adverse reaction to a hepatitis B vaccine in 1995. Sharkey v. FDA and Merck was filed in November 2004 after the FDA refused to release the requested documents, claiming that the data contained confidential commercial information.

For more information about the case, look here.


Posted 05-30-2007 5:08 PM EDT


Cheney Wants to Keep His Visitors Secret

Vice President Dick Cheney’s office apparently doesn’t want anyone to know exactly who’s visiting him at his residence.

A newly released letter  from Cheney’s lawyer, dated last September, tells the Secret Service that it should not keep any copies of information about the visitors to Cheney’s residence.

The letter was posted on the Web site of the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which has filed a lawsuit seeking the identities of conservative religious leaders who had visited the vice president at his official residence.

For more information about the letter, look here.


Posted 05-30-2007 4:33 PM EDT


Who’s Making Global Warming Political Today? The Smithsonian

Apparently concerned about upsetting lawmakers or the Bush administration, the Smithsonian toned down an Arctic climate change exhibit last year - doing such things as altering the text of the exhibit to make the relationship between global warming and humans seem more uncertain, according to The Associated Press.

Robert Sullivan, who used to be the associate director in charge of exhibitions at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (he resigned last fall), says the museum’s leaders didn’t want to anger politicians, although he did acknowledge that he knew of no one in the administration who pressured the Smithsonian.

“The obsession with getting the next allocation and appropriation was so intense that anything that might upset the Congress or the White House was being looked at very carefully,” Sullivan said.

The White House says that it had “no role” in the exhibit.



Posted 05-22-2007 2:32 PM EDT


Justice Department Refuses to Release Documents

Even with all the negative attention it’s received over the U.S. attorney firings, the Justice Department still has the nerve to refuse to release papers related to the scandal.

According to The Washington Post, the Justice Department has released almost 6,000 pages of documents relevant to the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys. But it refuses to release 171 documents to Congress.

The withheld papers include e-mails that discuss media strategies, drafts of letters to Capitol Hill, memos and other documents, according to the Post.

Can’t imagine that Congress is going to like this …

Posted 04-27-2007 2:42 PM EDT

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