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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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