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U.S. Archivist Calls for Moratorium on "Reclassifying" Documents

Allen Weinstein, the chief archivist of the United States, called for a moratorium on government agencies’ highly questionable practice of “reclassifying” documents that once were classified and were later made public. According to a March 3 New York Times story,  more than 55,000 pages of documents that agencies say were wrongly declassified have been removed from public view, including Web sites. 

Historians and other foes of excessive government secrecy have complained that the “reclassification” effort is often misguided for two reasons: 1) the records are already public - many have been posted on Web sites - and can’t be made secret again; and 2) there’s no valid reason to withdraw many of the records. According to the Times story, among the reclassified documents are reports on Communism in Mexico in the 1960s, intelligence estimates from the Korean War and Treasury Department records from the 1960s.

Weinstein, a published historian, called on the intelligence agencies, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, “to commit the necessary resources to restore to the public shelves as quickly as possible the maximum amount of information consistent with the obligation to protect truly sensitive national security information.”

Weinstein, of course, does not have the authority to order powerful intelligence agencies to release documents, and planned to meet with intelligence and military officials to explain his concerns. But historians and other secrecy foes, such as a spokeswoman for the National Security Archive at George Washington University, said it was gratifying that Weinstein “took our concerns very positively.”

 

Posted 03-03-2006 6:18 PM EDT

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Using the Law to Fight Bush Secrecy

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ excellent Project on Government Secrecy, points out two recent articles documenting how American citizens, including librarians and lawyers, are fighting the Bush administration’s heavy-handed tendency to hide more and more government information behind a wall of secrecy.

In a thorough article in Law Library Journal, University of California law librarian Susan Nevelow Mart draws up a detailed indictment of the Bush administration’s tendency to hide information even when there seems to be virtually no reason to do so.

She contrasts Clinton administration Attorney General Janet Reno’s pro-disclosure instructions to government agencies with John Ashcroft’s message that any official who decides to withhold records will be backed up by the Department of Justice. She also describes cases where the administration simply seems to be hiding information that might be embarrassing or provoke controversy, such as the location of environmental hazards.

But Mart suggests how secrecy opponents can use the Electronic Freedom of Information Act (E-FOIA) of 1996 (an expansion of FOIA) to reclaim information that the feds have removed from agency Web sites. That is, in cases where information was previously on the Web and was “well publicized” and where “there are multiple FOIA requests for the removed pages, the agency is obligated to make those pages available in its electronic reading room.”

Mart suggests a way for people to coordinate their efforts to get those documents back in the public arena. Mart’s article is called “Let the People Know the Facts: Can Government Information Removed from the Internet Be Reclaimed?”

And in an article in Federal Computer Week titled “Decrying Secrecy, Citizen Groups Fight Back,”  reporter Aliya Sternstein describes how anti-secrecy organizations are getting around government restrictions by publicizing government documents without official permission. Many of these fall into the netherworld of documents that are not classified but are not released to the public for vague or undisclosed reasons.

Posted 03-01-2006 12:58 PM EDT

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Cheney's Fowl Shot Again Reveals a Secretive Administration

The news that Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot and wounded a fellow hunter in Texas Feb. 11 has raised questions about why word of the accident took almost a full day to reach major U.S. media.

Cheney hit Harry Whittington with a shotgun at about 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11. According to The New York Times chronology, the news got to President Bush about an hour and half later, but no one in the White House or on the vice president’s staff told anyone in the media about the shocking event. Instead, it was left to Katharine Armstrong, a member of the shooting party, to break the news. At 11 a.m. the next day, she called a reporter at her local newspaper, The Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Katharine Armstrong is the daughter of Anne Armstrong, a Republican contributor, long-time Cheney friend and owner of the ranch where the shooting took place.

Cheney and his staff were not commenting, but White House press secretary Scott McClellan was peppered Monday, Feb. 13, with questions from reporters about why the White House hadn’t made the news public and why it had been released through a small Texas newspaper. McClellan told reporters that when he learned about the shooting at 6 a.m. Sunday he advised Cheney’s staff to get the information out “as quickly as possible.” Cheney’s office didn’t do that.

In fact, when the Corpus Christi newspaper asked Cheney spokesperson Lee Anne McBride whether the White House would have released the information if the Texas paper had not called, McBride said, “I’m not going to speculate. When you put the call in to me, I was able to confirm that account."

A lighthearted wrap-up of the media circus surrounding the shooting and Cheney’s subsequent disappearing act appears in ABC News’ daily political blog, The Note.

But many news media took the vice president’s secrecy seriously. A New York Post editorial asked, “If there was nothing to hide, why the secrecy?”

And the Washington Post editorialized, “Neither Mr. Cheney nor the White House gets to pick and choose when to disclose a shooting. Saturday’s incident required immediate public disclosure - a fact so elementary that the failure to act properly is truly disturbing in its implications.”

Comedians, news media and politicians had a field day with the story, especially because it seemed that the shooting victim would recover. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who had been scandalized when the vice president told him on the Senate floor to “go *#%! yourself,” joked, “In retrospect it looks like I got off easy.”

However, on Feb. 14, Whittington suffered a heart attack, sending him back to the intensive care unit, which could change the tone of commentary on the issue.

 

Posted 02-14-2006 4:48 PM EDT

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Administration Stonewalls on Government Spying

The U.S. Justice Department is refusing to comply with requests from the Senate Judiciary Committee for the department’s classified opinions on the legality of government spying on U.S. citizens without a warrant. The spying by the National Security Agency (NSA) has raised a fierce storm of controversy since it was revealed by the media in January.

According to The New York Times, the administration claims that the internal memos would add little to the official “white paper” already made public, but several key senators seem to disagree.

“That’s not a closed matter; we’re still working on that,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Judiciary Committee chairman. The committee is scheduled to hold its first hearing on the NSA spying program on Monday, Feb. 9.

On whether the NSA spying, authorized by President Bush after the 9/11 attacks, violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, Specter said the operation “violates FISA ­- there’s no doubt about that.” Specter is trying to dig deeper into the Justice Department rationale for the spying by examining its internal deliberations. There have been internal struggles within the department about the program’s legality, and it was suspended for several months in 2004.

The standoff over the spying controversy comes on the heels of similar Bush administration refusals to reveal internal memos on how it dealt with Hurricane Katrina and material on former super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has now pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

Posted 02-03-2006 12:25 PM EDT

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With Their Privacy Protected by Feds, Workers Won't Get Back Wages

When it comes to protecting citizens from government surveillance, the Bush administration usually takes a dismissive attitude toward privacy claims. But in a case where an advocacy group wants to let workers who have been deprived of their rightful pay know how to collect their back wages, the federal government is proving surprisingly zealous in “protecting” the workers’ need for privacy.

Now, Interfaith Worker Justice, a Chicago-based worker rights organization, is suing the U.S. Department of Labor to obtain the workers’ names. The Public Citizen Litigation Groups, representing IWJ, filed suit Jan. 18 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The case pertains to nearly 100,000 “unlocatable” low-wage workers who are owed back wages as part of government settlements (for example, people who are owed overtime pay that they never received). 

The Labor Department’s refusal is surprising, because for two years, the department worked with IWJ on a project to create a searchable Web site to assist the government in disbursing back wage settlements to unlocatable workers. The project was the idea of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division.

IWJ began building the Web site, working extensively with the Labor Department’s technology department in 2002. But in 2004 department officials told IWJ that they had privacy concerns and cut off all communication with IWJ.

In April 2005, IWJ submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the names of all workers owed back wages under federal settlements. But the Labor Department denied the request, citing a privacy clause in FOIA. As of 2004, approximately 95,000 workers had about $32 million coming to them from the Labor Department collection system.

A press release on the case and a copy of the suit are available on Public Citizen’s Web site.

Posted 01-20-2006 1:45 PM EDT

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Now Mine Safety is Secret Too

In a new blow to openness in government - and in an area that has no possible connection to national security - the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration has decided to stop disclosing to the public both the results of mine safety inspections and the reports filed by inspectors documenting any violations they find.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a persistent advocate of government transparency, blew the whistle on this unjustified move Jan. 11, when he released a letter he sent to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao calling on Chao to reverse the policy immediately. Waxman is the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Government Reform.

“This unwarranted secrecy may protect the mining industry from embarrassing disclosure, but it undermines accountability and mine safety,” Waxman wrote. The letter points out that the inspectors’ reports were helpful not only to mine safety organizations, mineworkers and the public, but also to the mine operators seeking to improve safety practices.

The inspectors’ reports and notes were available under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act until 2004, when the Mine Safety and Health Administration decided (with no justification given) that the reports would no longer be disclosed under FOIA.

Waxman points out that - while there is no clear connection between the increased secrecy and the January 2006 Sago mine disaster that killed coal 12 miners in West Virginia - ­ “the agency’s secrecy policy certainly limited public disclosure about the mine’s violations.”

A scathing op-ed on the Bush administration’s mine safety secrecy, written by Ellen Smith, the owner and managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News, appeared in the Washington Post Jan. 14.

Thanks to the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy for publicizing Waxman’s letter.

 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/13/AR2006011301499.html?sub=AR

 

Posted 01-19-2006 6:29 PM EDT

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IRS Secrecy Violates Court Order

The IRS since 2004 has been knowingly violating a longstanding court order that requires the agency to provide outside experts with detailed information about how it enforces the nation’s tax laws.

On Jan. 6, Public Citizen attorneys filed a motion in the U.S. District Court in Washington state asking the court to compel the IRS to comply with the previous court directive. The lawyers were acting on behalf of Susan B. Long, a professor of management information and decision sciences at Syracuse University in upstate New York.

The suit was filed in Seattle because that’s where Long was a graduate student back in 1976, when she initially got the court to order the IRS to supply her with ongoing information about its audit, collection and other enforcement activities. Since 1989, Long has been co-director of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse, a research institute that makes public detailed information about hundreds of federal agencies.

For years, the IRS mostly abided by the court order. Since mid-2004, however, the agency has refused. Among the juicy tidbits TRAC has unearthed: during the Clinton administration, the IRS audited poor people at a higher rate than rich people. And in 2004, TRAC found that criminal enforcement of the tax laws was at an all-time low.

In an earlier chapter of this controversy, Public Citizen filed suit on behalf of TRAC under the Freedom of Information Act in April 2005 to compel the IRS to stop illegally withholding information.

For more information on the most recent lawsuit, see Public Citizen’s Jan. 6 press release.

Posted 01-06-2006 6:51 PM EDT

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NSA Eavesdrops in America: We Don't Need No Stinking Warrants

The Bush administration has authorized the super-secret National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans in ways that may be illegal and unconstitutional, according to a Dec. 16 article in The New York Times. The NSA is supposed to collect information only on foreign enemies of the United States, but that line has been blurred since Sept. 11, 2001, to the point where even top intelligence officials have expressed worries that they may be engaged in illegal spying.

The Times admitted that it sat on the story for a year at the request of White House officials. Even now, the Times say it is omitting facts that it believes could damage U.S. national security.

Probably the most controversial revelation in the story is that the NSA has engaged in thousands of instances of electronic eavesdropping (known as wiretaps in the old days) without getting search warrants. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - passed in the 1970s after U.S. intelligence agencies had been found to be spying on domestic protest movements - requires the NSA to get search warrants. To make the process manageable, the act set up a special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to approve warrants quickly.

After those restrictions were passed, the NSA stopped almost all of its domestic spying - focusing on foreign embassies, spies and satellites. A few months after the 9/11 attacks revealed big flaws in U.S. intelligence-gathering, President Bush authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States without getting court-approved warrants.

The warrantless searches raise constitutional issues because the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights, declares that search warrants will only be granted “upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.” Obviously, the NSA spying does not come close to meeting those restrictions.

While some officials and politicians have apparently questioned whether the NSA searches are legal and constitutional, their concerns have been brushed aside.

Currently, the NSA “eavesdrops without warrants on up to 500 people in the United States at any given time,” the Times reports. In addition, 5,000 to 7,000 “people suspected of terrorist ties” are monitored abroad at any given time.

The Bush executive order goes far beyond   the counter-terrorism powers granted by the USA Patriot Act, which is currently up for renewal in Congress. The Bush administration apparently feels that the NSA domestic spying does not have to be approved by Congress, because it is covered by a congressional resolution on the war on terrorism.

NYT

 

 

Posted 12-16-2005 6:09 PM EDT

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Bill Moyers on Government Secrecy from LBJ to "NOW"

Bill Moyers, a journalist and commentator for close to 50 years, gives some interesting inside dope on right wing political machinations inside the Public Broadcasting System in a talk he gave Dec. 9 to the National Security Archive in Washington. Moyers was guest speaker at a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the archive, a non-governmental organization that makes public previously classified government information.

Moyers’ talk, titled “In the Kingdom of the Half-Blind,” provides valuable insight into government secrecy and news media collusion from the days when Moyers was LBJ’s press secretary to the present. He is harshly critical of secrecy in the current Bush administration, which he calls the most secretive ever. Moyers also gives an inside picture of Lyndon Johnson’s decision-making in the summer of 1964, when misinformation and government secrecy helped lead to an escalation of the Vietnam War.

From 2000 to 2004, Moyers hosted “NOW,” an independent-minded weekly news program on PBS. Moyers came in for lots of unjustified criticism from conservative politicians for his muckraking ways and alleged liberal bias. He eventually left the program in November 2004, at the same time the show was cut from an hour to a half-hour.

Moyers gives a detailed picture of how Corporation for Public Broadcasting Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson engaged in secret plots in violation of PBS rules to document NOW’s bias and recruit conservative shows to counter Moyers with conservative commentary. Moyers also claims that Tomlinson, a friend of Karl Rove’s, committed perjury in his testimony before Congress. Tomlinson was forced to resign from the CPB board.

 

 

 

Posted 12-16-2005 5:55 PM EDT

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Who Works for the Federal Government? Now That's Secret Too

In an unprecedented and unexplained secrecy move, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management reversed nearly 200 years of government openness when it refused to reveal the names and workplaces of almost 1 million federal workers.

The Public Citizen Litigation Group filed suit Dec. 5 against OPM on behalf of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), saying the government’s refusal violated the Freedom of Information Act. OPM failed to explain why it was withholding information about employees working for more than 250 federal agencies, among them the National Park Service and the Federal Trade Commission.

Read a copy of the lawsuit and a press release on the OPM secrecy move at Public Citizen’s Web site.

The government first began providing detailed information about its employees in a register published in 1816. The first name in the first register, authorized by Congress, was President James Madison.

TRAC co-directors David Burnham and Susan Long said that basic information about the employees who carry out the work of the federal government is critical to meaningful public oversight. For example, reporters covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina found it useful to know the names and worksites of FEMA officials assigned to Louisiana and Mississippi.

TRAC first sent its current records request to OPM in October 2004. OPM told TRAC it was reviewing its policy on disclosure of personnel information, then failed to respond for months. Finally, OPM on April 15, 2005, released some of the requested information but excluded information about civilian employees of the Department of Defense and more than 250 other agencies. OPM has also not provided information on how it came to its decision to reverse its longstanding policy of releasing personnel information.

 

Posted 12-06-2005 4:06 PM EDT

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