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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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