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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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