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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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