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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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Bizarre Courtroom Exclusion in FBI Whistleblower Case

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia barred the public, the media and Public Citizen’s lawyers from the courtroom April 21 in the case of Sibel Edmonds, the FBI whistleblower. Public Citizen attorney Michael Kirkpatrick, who had filed an amicus curiae brief in the case, called the exclusion "bizarre."

The action was taken at the initiative of the court itself, rather than at the request of the government (which would have been more typical). While the case involves sensitive material - Edmonds had complained about sloppy methods and a possible security breach in the FBI’s translation section - the court’s action will not keep testimony in the courtroom out of the public record.

That’s because, as Kirkpatrick explained, "there’s no gag order, and the court will release transcripts," which means that whatever is said in court will soon be made public. In addition, Edmonds’ lawyers, who were allowed to be present, do not have security clearances. The court closed the hearing on very short notice and gave no reason for the exclusion, Kirkpatrick said.

Public Citizen filed an emergency motion to contest the courtroom closure as did the American Civil Liberties Union, but their motions were denied.

Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News suggests the exclusion "seemed intended to suppress media coverage of the hearing rather than to protect classified information." Edmonds, a former FBI contract translator, says that she was fired for telling FBI supervisors about shoddy wiretap translations from Middle Eastern languages and the possible leaking of information to the target of an investigation.

See a January 19, 2005, Public Citizen press release for more background and documents on the Edmonds case.

 

Posted 04-22-2005 2:21 PM EDT

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AP Sues Government Over Secret Guantanamo Hearings

The Associated Press filed suit April 19 in federal court for the release of documents related to military hearings for Guantanamo detainees, according to an AP report. More than 500 terrorism suspects are being held at the U.S. military base in Cuba.

The AP says that it has been able to report only anecdotally on 558 tribunals conducted by the military since last August, after the Supreme Court ruled that the detainees may challenge their imprisonment. The news organization asked the court to order the government to release transcripts of all detainees’ testimony, along with their written statements and documents they have submitted.

The AP submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the information last fall, but the government has refused to provide the documents. The news agency says the documents are "unquestionably of great interest to the public."

The U.S. government has designated Guantanamo detainees enemy combatants, which means they have fewer legal protections than prisoners of war and can be held indefinitely without charges.

After a court ordered the military to comply with a FOIA request, the American Civil Liberties Union received thousands of documents pertaining to the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, but the ACLU is still seeking video and photographic evidence.

A limited number of documents showing U.S. government charges and rulings about some Guantanamo detainees (but not the detainees’ own statements) can be viewed on an AP Web site.

 

Posted 04-21-2005 5:31 PM EDT

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Washington Post Slams Administration Secrecy

The lead editorial in the April 18 Washington Post criticizes the Bush administration in general and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in particular for going overboard in making government information secret.

The Post describes several cases in which the NRC has kept secrets about safety vulnerabilities from the very people who are supposed to be studying those problems, including the U.S. nuclear industry. In one instance, an expert panel "was unable to examine several important issues related to the security of spent fuel, in part because it was unable to obtain needed information from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission."

The editorial points out that the NRC is not alone in its excessive drive for secrecy: For example, CIA budget data going back more than 40 years are still classified, even though the information was earlier made public.

For more on NRC secrecy, see this recent Bushsecrecy blog entry.

 

Posted 04-18-2005 6:07 PM EDT

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Bush's IRS Blocks Release of Documents, After 30 Years of Openness

The Internal Revenue Service is illegally withholding information about how it enforces tax law, using the absurd excuse that releasing the information would compromise homeland security. But the Public Citizen Litigation Group - supporting the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) - has sued the agency as part of TRAC’s ongoing effort to make public information that has been regularly available for the past 30 years, according to a Public Citizen press release.

What makes the IRS refusal especially outrageous is that the tax agency accepted a consent decree stemming from previous litigation that required it to make statistical information available to TRAC on a regular, ongoing basis. But the IRS recently balked at releasing the data, asserting that it would have to be specially compiled since it no longer keeps basic statistics about audits, appeals and collection activities.

TRAC, a nonpartisan research center based at Syracuse University, has in the past obtained information about the IRS’s databases and programs, statistical tables and an IRS manual on information systems. Such information allows independent observers to make their own judgments about how the agency is enforcing U.S. tax laws. For example, researchers have found that wealthy taxpayers are much more successful than poor ones in getting the IRS to reduce the amount of taxes and penalties owed in enforcement actions.

"From my research it appears the IRS is reverting to its habits in the 1950s and 1960s, when secrecy was the norm and the problems of corruption and political abuse were later uncovered by the Congress," said David Burnham, a co-director of TRAC, former New York Times reporter and author of "A Law Unto Itself: Power, Politics and the IRS."

The lawsuit filed by Public Citizen on behalf of TRAC claims that there is no valid exemption under the federal Freedom of Information Act for the IRS documents, and that agency officials have no authority to designate the documents "For Internal Use Only," as they have done. The plaintiffs are also asking the court to take initial steps toward finding the IRS officials subject to disciplinary action for arbitrarily and capriciously withholding documents from the public.

Posted 04-14-2005 3:03 PM EDT

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Defense Doctrine Web Site Shut Down

A large portion of a major U.S. Department of Defense Web site was taken offline April 8, after unclassified documents on the site became the subject of news stories and public controversy. The disappearing act was reported by the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News, an excellent source on government secrecy and secrets.

The missing Web presence is the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) Joint Electronic Library, where until recently you could find hundreds or thousands of doctrinal and other publications. It has been replaced by a single page that reads, "This website is under review. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause."

One of those publications was a draft entitled "Joint Doctrine for Detainee Operations" (JP 3-63) that was circulated by Human Rights Watch and others and that was critically reported in the press.

Another was a draft "Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations" (JP3-12), that was spotlighted by Jeffrey Lewis of ArmsControlWonk.com in early April.

In response, the Defense Department removed those draft documents, but also many hundreds of others. According to Secrecy News, a DTIC spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

To see a good selection of the documents that have gone missing, go to the FAS Web site. (In a wired world, it’s hard to hide information once it’s been put on the Web.)

Posted 04-08-2005 4:30 PM EDT

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Government Keeps More Secrets, Longer

The federal government set a new record for creating classified secrets in 2004, according to a new report from OpenTheGovernment.org, an organization devoted to reducing government secrecy. Federal employees chose to classify information 15.6 million times last year - 10 percent more than the previous year.

They also are keeping information secret longer: Two-thirds of the time, federal employees said the information should be kept secret for 10 years or more.

At the same time, the flow of old secrets to the public dropped to its lowest point in nearly a decade:  28 million pages in 2004. OpenTheGovernment.org noted that at this rate, the federal bureaucracy is falling further and further behind in its designated goals for making old classified information public.

Declassification has dropped 72 percent since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 - from just over 100 million pages to just 28.4 million pages in 2004. That’s the lowest number since 1994, when government agencies began automatically releasing documents classified for 25 years or more.

According to the report, the late 1990s seem to have been the heyday for reducing government secrecy. Only in the years 1995 to 1999 did the numbers of pages government secrets DECLASSIFIED exceed the number of pages of NEW classified documents.

The 2004 data came from the National Archives’ Information Security Oversight Office and can be viewed online. For a quick summary, see the OpenTheGovernment.org press release.

Posted 04-07-2005 11:20 AM EDT

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U.S. Secrecy Policy Challenged on Two Fronts

Two aspects of U.S. government secrecy are being subjected to new challenges - one by the American Civil Liberties Union, and the other by a group of Democratic senators. Each is tackling a part of the U.S. secrecy regime installed as a response to Sept. 11, 2001.

According to a report by the Inter-Press Service, the ACLU has filed a freedom of information (FOIA) request for records on the government’s practice of stopping scholars and others from entering the United States because of their political views. An ACLU attorney, Jameel Jaffer, said that while the USA Patriot Act permits the government to exclude foreign scholars who encourage terrorism, in fact the government is excluding people “simply because it disagrees with what they have to say.”

For example, Dora Maria Tellez, a leader of the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and later an elected Nicaraguan official, was forced to abandon a teaching position at Harvard after the U.S. government refused her a visa.

The ACLU’s FOIA request is aimed at the State Department, the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the CIA. It requests the names, nationalities and professions of those who have been excluded under the Patriot Act. Parts of the Patriot Act expire at the end of 2005, and the Bush administration wants Congress to re-enact the law in its entirety.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, four senior Democratic senators - Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Carl Levin of Michigan, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut - introduced the “Restore FOIA Act” to roll back some of the secrecy excesses of the Homeland Security Act of 2002.

The senators are focusing on the part of that law that creates a FOIA exemption for what it calls “critical infrastructure information” about power plants, bridges, dams, chemical plants and the like. The idea was that the exemption would encourage the owners of such facilities would be willing to share information about vulnerabilities if they knew that information would not fall into the hands of terrorists.

But, Leahy said in a statement introducing the bill that the legislation is too broad. It “shields the companies from lawsuits to compel disclosure, criminalizes otherwise legitimate whisteblower activity by Department of Homeland Security employees, and preempts any state or local disclosure laws.”

The proposed legislation would expand the public’s right to know about infrastructure problems while still protecting essential security secrets about infrastructure submitted by the private sector.

Posted 04-01-2005 2:49 PM EDT

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Public Citizen Slams NRC Proposal for More Secrecy

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is proposing to further reduce public access to information about nuclear safety, but Public Citizen has filed formal comments asking the NRC to withdraw its unwarranted new secrecy regulations. Public Citizen strongly objects to the agency's proposal to revise its regulations governing the protection of so-called "Safeguards Information." Access to that information is restricted to people who have undergone extensive background checks and demonstrated a "need to know" the information.

Public Citizen says the new rules go far beyond the "minimum restrictions needed to protect the health and safety of the public or the common defense and security," as required by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the law that established the Safeguards category. Public Citizen’s press release on the matter and full comments to the NRC are both available online.

"Rather than applying the 'minimum restrictions needed' requirement, the commission is attempting to expand the category of Safeguards Information to encompass virtually anything it wants - including information important to the public such as engineering and safety analyses, emergency planning procedures and inspection reports on nuclear facilities," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. "This is an unacceptable information blackout that will leave the public in the dark about the competency of the nuclear industry and the NRC."

The NRC's proposed rule would improperly restrict the public's access to important information that has proved useful in the past, the organization says. For example, using information obtained from the NRC about nuclear facilities' security capabilities, citizen groups in the early 1990s successfully pressured the agency to adopt higher standards for the protection of nuclear facilities, incorporating the possibility of adversaries using truck bombs.

The proposed rule comes at a time when the NRC is under fire for its use of the Safeguards classification to conceal industry vulnerabilities. U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) recently said in a letter to the NRC's inspector general that the suppression of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study about the security vulnerabilities of the pools in which reactor operators store irradiated nuclear fuel may be "based on the fact that it disagrees with the NAS' conclusions, not on any legitimate security concerns."

The NRC-NAS disagreement centers on whether it is safe enough to store spent nuclear fuel rods in large pools of water, or whether that highly radioactive spent fuel should be transferred to dry storage, which is probably safer but which would be more expensive.

The Washington Post, in a March 28 article, quotes NAS officials making the point that NRC Chairman Nils Diaz is misleading Congress about the Academy’s conclusions. E. William Colglazier, NAS executive director, warned that "if someone only reads the NRC report, they would not get a full picture of what we had to say."

Colglazier told the Post that the National Academy of Sciences has produced many classified reports but had never encountered such hurdles in creating a public version.

Posted 03-29-2005 5:53 PM EDT

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Whistleblower Protection Unit Under Attack

The Office of Special Counsel - the federal office that is supposed to protect government whistleblowers - is being systematically weakened by its own politically motivated director. In response, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a watchdog organization, has organized a campaign to stop this negative crackdown and support freedom of information in the federal government.

The dismantling of whistleblower protection was exposed in a press alert by POGO, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Government Accountability Project.

National Public Radio
covered the story March 9, and it can be heard online. As NPR points out, it’s ironic that the office that was supposed to protect whistleblowers now needs protection itself.

The purpose of the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is to enforce the Whistleblower Protection Act, so that if someone reveals abuses, say, at the Defense Department, they won’t be disciplined for speaking out. But Special Counsel Scott Bloch has placed a gag order on OSC staff and "purged" 12 senior staffers. The press alert reveals that OSC is "now scrambling to shrink its workload further, enlisting summer interns to dismiss cases."

POGO asked supporters of open government to come to its online Action Center to urge Congress to investigate OSC’s anti-whistleblower activities.

 

 

Posted 03-18-2005 1:48 PM EDT

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Poll: Americans STILL Don't Like Government Secrecy

Despite 9/11 and the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, seven of 10 Americans are still worried about excessive government secrecy, according to an Associated Press report.

A poll conducted in early March for a coalition of media groups and others concerned about government secrecy showed that more than half of Americans feel the government should provide more access to its records. Even more said they were "concerned" or "very concerned" about government secrecy.

The poll results surprised some secrecy experts, who expected that Americans might have become more tolerant of government secrecy since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Instead, attitudes have not changed much since a similar poll conducted in February 2000.

Among the poll’s findings: 52 percent of 1,003 respondents said there is too little access to government information, 36 percent said access is "just about right," and 6 percent said there is too much.

 

 

Posted 03-16-2005 4:25 PM EDT

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