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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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