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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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