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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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Indict a Leaker, Muzzle the Press

A recent case in which pro-Israel lobbyists have been indicted for accepting classified information has free-press advocates worried. The reason: this is the first time in recent memory that private citizens (rather than U.S. government employees) have been charged with “delivery and transmission” of classified information - a “crime” that journalists commit all the time as part of their reporting.

Critics see the indictments as part of an ongoing Bush administration effort to crack down on press freedom. “The indictments reflect a disturbing tendency of the Department of Justice to limit the dissemination of information to the public by using the criminal law in a particularly aggressive manner,” veteran civil liberties advocate Floyd Abrams told The Raw Story, a news Web site.

The story began Aug. 4, when the Justice Department indicted two former officials of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin for conspiracy to communicate classified intelligence to Israel. AIPAC is a powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization based in Washington.

Franklin has decided to plead guilty and will testify against the two former AIPAC employees, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, who have been fired. Their trial is expected in early 2006.

The reason their indictment is so unusual is that the United States does not have an Official Secrets Act as Britain does. While it is illegal for a government employee who has a security clearance and signed a non-disclosure agreement to reveal classified information, it is not against U.S. law for other persons to share that information.

John Pike, who runs the defense watchdog Web site GlobalSecurity.org, told The Raw Story, “What they’re doing in this case by indicting them for conspiracy is to create a Secrets Act.”

As Eli Lake wrote in the Oct. 10 New Republic, “If it’s illegal for Rosen and Weissman to seek and receive ‘classified information,’ then many investigative journalists are also criminals.”

Lake added, “At a time when a growing amount of information is being classified, the prosecution of Rosen and Weissman threatens to have a chilling effect - not on the ability of foreign agents to influence U.S. policy, but on the ability of the American public to understand it.”

 

Posted 10-04-2005 6:25 PM EDT

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Democrats Push for More Documents on Roberts

Democrats in the Senate continue to clash with the Bush administration over whether the White House will release documents that reveal the thinking of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts.

Senate Democrats accused the White House of delaying the release of documents that could make Roberts’ confirmation more controversial, according to an Aug. 10 Associated Press story. “The time for such partisan review of documents was before the nomination of Judge Roberts to the Supreme Court,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

White House spokesperson Dana Perino said the administration is just doing a “quick review” of the documents “for any national security, personal privacy or other privacy concerns,” Reuters reported.

The biggest controversy continues to focus on whether senators will have access to internal memos from Roberts’ work as deputy solicitor general during the 1989-1993 administration of President George H.W. Bush. In early August the Justice Department said it would not give the Senate records from 16 cases in which Roberts dealt with such issues as abortion, affirmative action, school prayer and capital punishment, AP reported.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) backed the administration’s decision to keep those records secret.

“Given the way the information has been trickling out and given the serious questions that the information has raised each time something trickles out, this is all the more reason to come clean,” said Karen Finney, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee.

The White House is releasing records from Roberts’ work for the Reagan administration in the early 1980s.

Some information on Roberts has raised questions. For example, he once lobbied for cosmetics makers, and he worked with the ultra-conservative Federalist Society (though may not have officially been a member). So far, no revelations have seemed explosive enough to derail the confirmation prospects of President Bush’s first nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

Posted 08-11-2005 3:10 PM EDT

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White House Won't Release Roberts Solicitor General Documents

Bush administration officials said the White House will release some government documents produced by Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts but will not make public the work Roberts did for the administration of President George H.W. Bush, when he was principal deputy solicitor general from 1989 to 1993.

Most of the earlier Roberts documents are already in the public domain or are covered by federal laws that tend to make them publicly accessible, so it would be hard for the Bush White House to keep them secret.

The White House decision will not satisfy Democratic senators, who have demanded access to files from Roberts’ work in the solicitor general’s office. Because Roberts has been a federal judge for only two years, he has not left much of a paper trail revealing his views, and Democrats are hoping that his work as deputy solicitor general will provide some ammunition for the upcoming confirmation hearings. Roberts worked as deputy to Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr (yes, the Kenneth Starr of Clinton and Monica fame), where he helped plan legal strategies for the first Bush administration.

White House officials said they will help make available (or at least will not block the release of) documents relating to two earlier Roberts positions during the Reagan administration.

Documents related to Roberts’ work in the White House counsel’s office from 1982 to 1986 are in the Ronald Reagan presidential library. Those will be released “after review,” according to The Washington Post. According to The New York Times, the Bush administration decided to waive any claim of attorney-client privilege because those papers are covered by the Presidential Records Act, which favors disclosure of documents covered by the act.

Earlier documents relating to Roberts’ work as special assistant to Attorney General William French Smith from 1981 to 1982 have been stored in the National Archives and so were publicly available. They are being sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee and reporters will be able to read them.

 

 

 

 

Posted 07-26-2005 6:40 PM EDT

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White House Won't Show All Roberts Records

Two Republican spokespersons said that the Senate will not have access to all the documents produced by Supreme Court nominee John Roberts when he worked for two Republican administrations, the Associated Press reported July 25. 

Roberts worked in the Reagan White House counsel’s office from 1982 to 1986, and then was principal deputy solicitor general in the Justice Department under the first President Bush.

TV actor and former Senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who is shepherding the Roberts nomination through the Senate confirmation process, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” July 24 that Roberts’ work would be withheld because it falls under attorney-client privilege. “We hope we don’t get into a situation where documents are asked for that folks know will not be forthcoming and we get all hung up on that,” Thompson said.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, while taking a less rigid stand than Thompson, said he would be reluctant to share Roberts’ work for the solicitor general’s office, “because it is so sensitive … and does chill communications between line attorneys and their superiors within the Department of Justice.”

But Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will consider the nomination, are unlikely to be put off by privacy claims. Said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the senior Democrat on the committee, “Of course there is no lawyer-client privilege. Those working in the solicitor general’s office are not working for the president. They’re working for you and me and the American people.”

Posted 07-25-2005 1:09 PM EDT

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Senators Pushing For Government Openness

U.S. Sens. Patrick D. Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) are proposing legislation that would penalize agencies that ignore Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

FOIA is used every year by millions of people, primarily journalists. The government, however, can refuse to release information if it says there is a possible threat to national security, personal privacy or law enforcement.

Although 92 percent of requests were granted last year, the Government Accountability Office said that the backlog of requests has increased 14 percent since 2002. Experts say that the cause of delay may be that the document is hard to locate or that requests are unclearly stated. Also, with the increasing number of requests, the agencies do not have enough staff to keep up.

The goal of the bills is to make the agencies more responsive to requests. Open-government advocates believe, however, that the legislation will have little effect on the types of information the government releases.

The Cornyn-Leahy bill would penalize agencies that do not contact requesters within 20 days about whether the information can be released. The bill also would curtail the legal grounds that agencies use to withhold documents and would make it more difficult for the government to avoid paying the legal expenses of requesters when conflicts are brought to court.

Cornyn and Leahy are also pushing to create an ombudsman for FOIA to mediate possible conflicts between the public and the government. This would provide requesters who are dissatisfied with an agency’s response an alternative to court.

According to The Washington Post, the proposal marks the first push for FOIA openness in years. FOIA replaced sections of a 1966 law that required information seekers to explain why they wanted the information. Under FOIA, the government must explain why it will not grant a request.

Posted 07-11-2005 10:46 AM EDT

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Bush Administration Blocked Release of Negative CAFTA Studies

When a federal contractor hired to study Central American countries in consideration for free-trade status produced results that boded poorly for the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the government kept the results secret for more than a year.

According to a June 29 Associated Press story, the contractor, International Labor Rights Fund, which was hired in 2002 by the Department of Labor, concluded that countries proposed for free-trade status have poor working environments and fail to protect workers’ rights. The contractor has since become a major opponent of CAFTA, which is being promoted heavily by the Bush administration.

The contractor’s conclusions contradict the Bush administration’s assertion that the Central American countries have made significant progress on labor issues, enough progress to justify the free-trade pact. The Labor Department claims that the conclusions were biased and inaccurate.

The studies came close to release in March 2004, when they were posted for a short time on the contractor’s Web site. Shortly after, the Labor Department demanded that the studies be removed from the site, arguing that the posting was not approved by the agency. In addition, the department demanded the contractor recover paper copies before releasing them to the public, banned any new information released from the reports and told the contractor not to discuss information from the studies with outsiders.

The department and contractor have now agreed to release the reports, provided that the federal agency and government funding are not mentioned in the process.

Posted 06-30-2005 2:30 PM EDT

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Bush’s HHS Blocked Report Warns of Milk Supply Threat

report published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) about the potential for bioterrorists to pour a dangerous toxin into the nation’s milk trucks faced opposition by federal officials who wanted to keep the details secret.

The analysis was conducted by researchers at Stanford University, who posted the study on the PNAS Web site on June 28. The study points to the weaknesses of the nation’s milk industry and details the measures needed to prevent a potential bioterrorism attack. According to the research, only a third of an ounce of botulism toxin, a bacterial nerve poison, poured into a milk truck between a dairy farm and processing plant could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in economic losses.

Publication of the report was scheduled for the week of May 30, but was postponed because U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officials said that the report might unwittingly aid terrorists. According to a June 29 Washington Post article, study leader Lawrence M. Wein, whose previous research has involved the possible effects of terrorist attacks involving anthrax and smallpox, said that he was surprised by the government’s strong desire to block publication. According to Wein, the government’s push to block publication involved numerous phone calls and several meetings with National Academies officials. Ultimately, PNAS decided to publish, noting that the information in the article is available through a Google search.

Barry R. Bloom, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, told the Post that the publication of the report did more good than harm, because it will push the milk industry and government officials to focus their efforts on security.

Posted 06-29-2005 3:38 PM EDT

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Secrecy Cost Feds Over $7.2 Billion in 2004

According to a new report from the federal Information Security Oversight Office, the U.S. government spent $7.2 billion in FY2004 guarding, transporting, managing and classifying the nation’s secrets. And that total doesn’t include the CIA’s cost, which couldn’t be revealed because (naturally) it’s classified.

The $7.2 billion is up from $6.5 billion in fiscal 2003, an 11 percent increase. The total includes costs for 41 executive branch agencies, including the Department of Defense and its intelligence agencies. It covers everything from issuing security clearances for personnel to physically securing secret stuff to information technology - at $3.9 billion the biggest category.

The report says that much of the increased cost is generated by “the fortified homeland defense posture being adopted by many agencies,” leading them to build new secure facilities. Another cost driver (and this is new to us): a recently established “Personal Identity Verification (PIV) standard that is supposed to be effective throughout the executive branch by October 2006.

In fact, the only thing that seems to be decreasing is the government’s declassification effort. ISOO reports that $48.3 million was spent on declassification in FY2004, an 11 percent decrease from 2003. The number of pages declassified is down 34 percent.

Interestingly, ISOO seems to chide the government (for what that’s worth), reminding agencies that declassification is an ongoing responsibility, and that “every year subsequent to 2006, a new body of classified records that is 25 years old and has permanent historical value . . . will be subject to automatic declassification.”

The ISOO report also tracks the costs of using and protecting classified information for U.S. businesses - $823 million, down from $1 billion in FY 2003. Business costs fluctuate from year to year, while U.S. government costs show a steady year-to-year rise.

 

Posted 06-01-2005 3:00 PM EDT

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Cheney and Energy Companies Win, Open Government Loses

The long-running struggle over whether Vice President Cheney’s energy task force would have to reveal the names of those with whom it met came to a close May 10, when a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the administration. The ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was unanimous. Because the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case in 2004 and sent it back to the lower court for resolution, no further appeal is possible.

The Sierra Club’s lead attorney in the case told The Washington Post that the ruling was a double defeat - on the substance of energy policy as well as "for efforts to have open government and for the public to know how their elected officials are conducting business."

Assembled shortly after Bush and Cheney took office in 2001, the task force met secretly with industry lobbyists and executives to formulate a national energy strategy that was very friendly to business and ignored environmental concerns. That strategy became the basis for wide-ranging energy legislation that is still pending in Congress.

For more than two years, the conservative group Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club tried to gain access to the task force records. They argued that keeping the records secret violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley said that the appeals court had set ground rules that made it virtually impossible for the open-government advocates to win. That’s because, for federal anti-secrecy rules to apply, the Cheney energy task force would have had to have as official members people who are not government employees. But the Sierra Club and Judicial Watch were never allowed to find out who were the members of the task force. Turley told the Washington Post, "It’s impossible to establish that industry substantially participated in these meetings, if you deny them basic discovery needed to show those facts."

The National Security Archive has additional commentary on the legal ramifications of the court decision.

 

Posted 05-13-2005 4:24 PM EDT

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Declassification Board Lost in a Limbo of Zero Funding

The Public Interest Declassification Board was officially authorized by Congress in 2000 - but now, five years later, it still has not met or begun operation, according to a May 2 Washington Post article. The reason: zero funds.

The purpose of the board is to advise the executive branch on which classified documents (some of them quite old) should be made public and which kept secret for an additional period.

The nine-member board is supposed to have five members appointed by the president and four by Congress. In September 2004, the White House finally got around to appointing its five members, and earlier this year Congress appointed two of its four members. That means the board now has enough members to actually meet.

But the White House has not requested any funds to support the board, and Congress has not appropriated any. Since nothing can happen in Washington without at least minimal funds for staff support, that means the board is in an odd limbo - it exists but can do nothing.

A consortium of government watchdog groups, including the Project on Government Oversight, sent a letter to President Bush and congressional leaders April 29 urging them to supply the necessary funding. When that will happen is anyone’s guess.

J. William Leonard, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, which is supposed to provide staff support for the declassification board, told The Post, "It’s frustrating, in that I don’t believe there is a deliberate decision not to address this. But, rather, because it is such a small dollar figure, ironically that’s what creates one of the biggest challenges - because it’s not the type of thing that normally garners attention."

Posted 05-02-2005 5:06 PM EDT

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