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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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Court Hides SUV Safety Documents, Though They've Been Public for Weeks

Public Citizen, represented by Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, has filed a legal challenge to a Florida court order that hides from the public crucial exhibits about safety in Ford Explorer rollover crashes. The now-hidden documents show how Ford weakened the roof of the Explorer throughout the late 1990s. The exhibits come from a case, Duncan v. Ford Motor Co., that Ford lost, resulting in a $10.2 million jury award.

Amazingly, the Florida court agreed to seal the exhibits even though they were introduced in public trial and have been publicly available to news media and on Web sites for weeks. The sealed documents show that Ford knew that stronger roofs can prevent injuries in SUV rollover crashes, but made the Explorer with a roof that barely met federal standards. Ford told the court the documents include trade secrets that should be protected.

Public Citizen and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice argue that the court order violates Florida’s Sunshine Act, which forbids court orders that conceal public hazards, as well as the First Amendment. Public Citizen believes there’s a strong public interest in the documents because of the 10,000 people who die every year in the United States in rollover crashes and because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is considering a proposal to improve its roof strength safety standards.

The Public Citizen Web site includes a press release that explains the issues as well as the legal motion challenging the court’s secrecy order.

 

 

Posted 12-02-2005 7:00 PM EDT

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EPA Proposes Cut in Reporting of Toxic Releases

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new regulations that would drastically cut back its Toxic Release Inventory - a successful program that informs communities of toxic chemicals released into their local environments. The EPA published the new standards in the Oct. 4, and the public can now comment on the proposal. 

The program has been in effect for 17 years, and has led to a significant reduction in the releases of toxic chemicals around the United States. Since the program began in 1988, disposals or releases of the original 299 chemicals tracked have dropped nearly 60 percent, according to OMB Watch, a public interest group that opposes the cutback in public information.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Instead of reporting every year, facilities would report every other year.
  • Companies would have to increase 10 times the current amount of pollution before triggering a mandatory report.
  • Facilities could withhold information on persistent low-level toxins, including lead and mercury.

The EPA’s rationale for its proposal is to reduce the amount of paperwork industry must complete, but the agency fails to take into account that communities have used this information to successfully press companies for pollution reductions.

One recent instance shows why the Toxic Release Inventory is so useful: after Hurricane Katrina, government officials, citizens used TRI data to identify possible sources of toxic storm-related releases.

Thanks to the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy for helping to make this travesty of environmental protection public.

 

Posted 11-16-2005 3:53 PM EDT

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CIA Has Secret Prisons Overseas, Report Says

The CIA has been operating a system of secret overseas prisons for terrorists and other suspected enemies since 2001, according to a Nov. 2 front page report in The Washington Post.

The CIA has at various times stashed prisoners in eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and two Eastern European countries. The Post reported that some of the CIA’s most important al Qaeda suspects have been interrogated at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe, which has got to bring up nasty associations.

The CIA has been extremely successful in keeping the system hidden, allowing only a few people in the United States and the host countries to know about the prisons and persuading Congress not to ask for open testimony about the prisoners or the conditions in which they are held.

The Post revelation adds yet another layer to the scandalous U.S. record of prisoner treatment in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. Among the previous abuses that have surfaced: techniques that almost certainly meet the definition of torture in U.S.-run facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq (including Abu Ghraib), extreme interrogation methods in Guantanamo, and the “rendition” of prisoners and suspected enemies to countries that practice torture such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Unlike the Department of Defense, which has been forced to allow investigation and limited public scrutiny of its prisons, the CIA has not even acknowledged the existence of it “black sites.”

According to the Post, concerns over the CIA prisons motivated Vice President Cheney and CIA Director Porter Goss to ask Congress to exempt CIA employees from legislation voted for by 90 senators that would bar cruel and degrading treatment of any prisoner in U.S. custody. It seems that concerns have been growing within the United States and cooperating governments about the legality and practicality of keeping terrorists, insurgents and suspects in secret prisons, perhaps for the rest of their lives.

The prohibition against inflicting “cruel and unusual punishments” is included in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights. The language seems to enact a blanket prohibition, with no exceptions made for offshore facilities.

The CIA’s interrogators overseas are allowed to use “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” that most Americans might well consider torture.

The New York Times picked up the story on Nov. 4, revealing that Poland and Romania were the two Eastern European countries alleged to have secret prisons. The prime minister of Romania insisted that his country held no “CIA bases,” and a member of the Polish cabinet said there was “no information” about such facilities.

But the organization Human Rights Watch said it had flight logs of airplane flights in which prisoners were transported from Afghanistan to Romania and Poland.  

According to The Times, the European Union said it would make an informal inquiry into the claims. The United States refused to confirm or deny anything on the topic.

Posted 11-07-2005 11:51 AM EDT

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Gulf of Tonkin Intelligence Lies Still Kept Secret, 41 Years Later

Forty-one years after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, an armed naval clash that helped precipitate U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war, the truth about the incident is still being kept secret, according to an article in the Oct. 31 New York Times. The reason: it might call into question PRESENT-DAY U.S. intelligence. 

A revealing account of the clash, and how U.S. intelligence agencies lied about it, was published in early 2001 in the U.S. National Security Agency’s Cryptologic Quarterly, a classified journal. But the truth has never been made public. According to the Times story, an effort to publish the findings openly was “rebuffed by higher-level agency policy-makers, who by the next year [2003] were fearful that it might prompt uncomfortable comparisons with the flawed intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq.” 

The article was written by NSA historian Robert J. Hanyok. The NSA is the premier U.S. agency intercepting and interpreting electronic intelligence.

According to Hanyok, intelligence agencies originally made a mistake in interpreting what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, saying that two North Vietnamese attacks had occurred when actually just one clash had occurred. The Times reports, “Mid-level agency officials discovered the error almost immediately but covered it up and doctored documents so that they appeared to provide evidence of an attack.”

The intelligence mistake and cover-up helped persuade  Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964, authorizing U.S. military action in Vietnam. The resolution was then used by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to justify 11 years of military action in Vietnam.

 

Posted 10-31-2005 7:17 PM EDT

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Secrecy, Surveillance and Torture: The Big Picture

The Washington Spectator, an independent magazine, provides an excellent survey of concerns about U.S. government secrecy in its October issue. An article titled “Secrets, Lies and Torture” by Joe W. Pitts, a lecturer at Stanford Law and human rights activist,  lays out clearly the connection between Bush administration secrecy and its tendency to approve of torture.

As Pitts says, “Secrecy is almost always a precondition for torture, for what self-respecting official would publicly admit to resorting to such means, so clearly prohibited by the absolute ban in the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture?”

The move toward increasing government secrecy has been accompanied by increased surveillance of American citizens. “The number of searches under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act dramatically increased under the Patriot Act. Such searches now, for the first time, exceed the number of wiretaps issued on probable cause of criminal activity,” Pitts says.

Other reasons for concern: the impending reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act, and the “Real ID Act” just passed with little public attention. That act, by standardizing state driver’s licenses and requiring them to include machine-readable addresses and Social Security numbers, moves us closer to a national ID card.

As Pitts concludes, “We must resist.”

Posted 10-18-2005 4:23 PM EDT

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