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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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Justice Department Caves on Retroactively Classified Information

A hearing scheduled for the morning of Feb. 22 before U.S. District Judge John D. Bates in Washington was abruptly cancelled after the Justice Department gave up and admitted that the information it had retroactively classified could be released to the public.

Last June, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) sued then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) for retroactively classifying information related to whistleblower Sibel Edmonds' allegations of wrongdoing in an FBI translation unit. The suit alleged that the retroactive classification was unlawful and violated POGO's First Amendment right to free speech.

The information about Edmonds had already presented by the FBI to the Senate Judiciary Committee during two unclassified briefings in 2002. The information was referenced in letters from U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to DOJ officials. The senators' letters were posted on their Web sites but were removed after the FBI notified the Senate in May 2004 that the information had been retroactively classified

According to a Feb. 23 Washington Post article, a report by the Justice Department Inspector General found that the FBI "was lax in investigating [Edmonds’] complaints and fired her partly because she made them." Critics of the FBI have charged that the real reason for trying to classify the information about the whistle-blower is not that national security secrets are at stake, but rather to cover up sloppy work by the FBI.

During a June 2004 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Ashcroft defended the decision to retroactively classify the information, claiming that its further dissemination could seriously impair the national security interests of the United States, even though for more than two years the information was widely available to the public.

"The fact that the Justice Department gave up on the eve of the hearing shows that this information was classified for an improper purpose," said Danielle Brian, POGO's executive director. "If this information could ever have harmed national security, the Justice Department would never have caved in."

Throughout the litigation, POGO had offered to dismiss the suit if the DOJ stated that POGO could discuss and disseminate the letters without fear of prosecution, but the agency refused and instead claimed that POGO lacked standing to maintain the suit because the threat of criminal sanctions did not injure POGO. The DOJ backed down when faced with the prospect of tough questions at the hearing by a federal judge.

POGO was represented in the case by lawyers from the Public Citizen Litigation Group and the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center.

Visit POGO’s Web site to look at the Department of Justice's letter reversing the retroactive classification and other legal documents from POGO vs. Ashcroft, or to examine the background of the case, including press coverage.

 

Posted 02-23-2005 1:05 PM EDT

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CIA Won't Disclose Files on Nazi War Criminals

Sixty years after the fall of Nazi Germany, the CIA is refusing to disclose to a government working group hundreds of thousands of pages that document how the U.S. government tried to recruit Nazi war criminals after World War II. The dispute was made public in a Jan. 30 New York Times article.

According to the 1998 Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, a specially appointed working group is supposed to make public "all classified Nazi war criminal records of the United States." But members of the working group have complained that the CIA has been interpreting the law so narrowly that hundreds of records are still secret. According to The Times, the CIA has been dragging its feet for about three years - that would make it shortly after the start of the Bush administration, wouldn’t it? Makes you wonder, who still has skeletons in that closet, and what can they be afraid of?

Records already made public show that the U.S. intelligence and military agencies worked closely with Nazi war criminals after the war, allowing dozens to live safely in the United States.

According to working group member Thomas H. Baer, a former federal prosecutor, "Too much has been secret for too long. The CIA has not complied with the statute." The working group includes representatives of several government agencies, as well as three non-governmental public members.

Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), one of the sponsors of the 1998 law, has asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold a public hearing on the matter, at which CIA officials and members of the working group will testify.

The Anti-Defamation League, an organization that combats anti-Semitism, urged the CIA Feb. 2 to release the documents.

Posted 02-03-2005 5:04 PM EDT

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Don’t Silence That Whistle-Blower!

The case of FBI whistle-blower Sibel Edmonds keeps getting more and more interesting. Edmonds, who was a contract translator for the FBI in Turkish, Farsi and Azerbaijani, was fired by the bureau when she raised questions about the competence of the FBI translation service and also accused a fellow translator of espionage.

Edmonds challenged her dismissal in court - saying it was a retaliatory firing because she was a whistle-blower who is protected by law from such retaliation. But Attorney General John Ashcroft invoked a seldom-used “state secrets privilege” to throw her case out of court because talking about it would allegedly endanger national security.

On Jan. 15,  the inspector general of the Department of Justice issued a highly critical report on the Edmonds affair, finding the FBI had in fact fired Edmonds for whistle-blowing and had failed to take seriously the espionage accusation.

Edmonds is appealing her case in federal court, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. Public Citizen recently filed an amicus curiae brief supporting Edmonds, along with several other anti-secrecy organizations. For more details on the case of the multi-lingual whistle-blower, see Public Citizen’s press release, read the text of the amicus brief, or read the New York Times coverage of the inspector general’s report.

Posted 01-21-2005 5:42 PM EDT

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Secrecy Policy Still Goes Too Far

The Department of Homeland Security discontinued its requirement that workers at the department sign a secrecy pledge prohibiting them from sharing sensitive but unclassified information with the public. According to the agreement, any information that could compromise the privacy of individuals or "adversely affect the national interest or conduct of federal programs" was considered sensitive, according to The New York Times.

Violators risked administrative, disciplinary, criminal and civil penalties. One provision required signers to consent to government inspections "at any time or place" to ensure compliance.

Within the next month, the department will begin computer-based training sessions for employees on handling sensitive information.

The secrecy pledge was met with wide criticism by civil liberties groups and two unions, all charging the pledge as overly broad, unworkable and an unconstitutional restriction of privacy and free speech.

The unions applauded the department's decision to change its policy, but said its revised plan for safeguarding sensitive information covered "a broad and vaguely defined universe of information." The unions also said the department's approach in managing employees may "undermine national security and the public interest by suppressing whistle-blowing and discouraging dissent."

Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, said department employees are still at risk of unfair disciplinary action.

"A government agency should never threaten its employees or contractors with criminal prosecution for disclosing information that is available under the Freedom of Information Act," Amey said in a written statement.

Posted 01-18-2005 4:13 PM EDT

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Auto Defects? What Auto Defects?

Four years ago, after the spate of Ford-Firestone rollover crashes that resulted from defective tires, Congress passed a law that required certain safety data to be gathered by the government and made available to the public. The purpose of the law was to give the public access to information collected about the vehicles they drive.

But to the delight of the auto industry, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has decided to conceal much of this critical information from the public. NHTSA is withholding warranty claims, production numbers, field reports and even consumer complaints.

Auto manufacturers too often hide safety defects to avoid the costs of recalling vehicles and say they are against making the information public because they would suffer competitive harm. This situation puts the public at risk, according to a statement released by Public Citizen. In a legal brief filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the group contended NHTSA's secrecy is a perversion of the Freedom of Information Act.

Said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, "Consumers have a right to know if the vehicle they are driving has potential safety flaws that could injure or kill them."

Posted 01-14-2005 5:21 PM EDT

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The Department of Secret Propaganda

The Bush administration, apparently not satisfied with the usual methods of manipulating news coverage, has been caught paying a prominent journalist to support its views and sending out fake video news segments posing as real news.

On Jan. 8, The Washington Post described how the U.S. Department of Education paid prominent black conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $241,000 to promote the administration’s No Child Left Behind law. The contract called for Armstrong to comment favorably on the law in his broadcasts and to use his contacts with African-American news producers to get favorable coverage of the law.

Armstrong has his own radio show, "The Right Side," appears frequently on CNN and other TV outlets, and has (until recently) had a syndicated column carried by Chicago-based Tribune Media Services. But that company dropped his column when it learned that Armstrong had been paid by a federal agency to promote its agenda.

And on Jan. 7, The Post also revealed that the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy has been sending out video news releases that look like television news segments and which at least 300 local TV stations have used. The segments have an announcer posing as a journalist, and many stations are believed to have used them without ever identifying them as coming from the government.

The Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency, said the news releases were illegal "covert propaganda." This latest abuse comes after many similar incidents. Last spring, the GAO criticized the Department of Health and Human Services for putting out similar fake news reports promoting the government’s new Medicare drug benefit.

"What is objectionable about these is the fact the viewer has no idea their tax dollars are being used to write and produce this video segment," explained GAO official Susan Poling.

 

Posted 01-10-2005 2:21 PM EDT

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Let's Not Talk About Missile Defense

Back in 1983, President Ronald Reagan promised the nation a high-tech shield against missile attacks. The White House called the plan the Strategic Defense Initiative; critics called it Star Wars and said it was an impossible dream.

Twenty-two years later, America still has no missile shield and the U.S. Department of Defense is doing its best to keep the truth about it from the public. In 2000, the Pentagon’s Department of Operational Testing and Evaluation put out a report that was highly critical of U.S. efforts to assemble a national missile defense system. The report was discussed in public hearings and reported on in the media.

Three years later, the DoD classified the document, without offering any justification - even though the substance of it was well known. The Washington watchdog organization, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), is doing its best to fight the Pentagon’s retroactive classification. It is asking people to write Rumsfeld protesting the classification, and has posted details on how to do that. POGO states that the secrecy move is most likely an attempt to stifle debate on the expensive missile defense program, which had another test failure Dec. 15.

 

 

 

Posted 12-27-2004 5:39 PM EDT

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A Ray of Sunshine on Classified Documents?

The National Intelligence Reform Act passed by Congress on Dec. 8 does create a new "director of national intelligence" position - and that’s what has gotten most of the media attention. But it does other things as well.

From the perspective of Americans worried about too much government secrecy, the law also contains a bit of good news: It creates a Public Interest Declassification Board, a body members of Congress can appeal to when they feel federal agencies are classifying too much information in the name of national security.

Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) pushed for the new board, partly as a response to a controversy over how much of a scathing congressional report on CIA assessments of Iraq could be made public. The CIA wanted to classify more than half of the report, but members of Congress got that down to 20 percent.

Last year alone, the U.S. government spent $6.5 billion creating 14.3 million new classified documents, according to a statement from Wyden’s office

The board will have nine members - five appointed by the president and four appointed by Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress. The Associated Press report on creation of the board is based on Wyden’s statement.

The intelligence act also tries to inject a bit of civil liberties awareness into the Department of Homeland Security. It adds the protection of civil liberties and civil rights to the department’s mission statement, and creates a new position to protect civil liberties and civil rights in the DHS office of the inspector general.

 

Posted 12-13-2004 12:22 PM EDT

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How to Say "No to Secrecy" in Indonesian

Fred Burks, a valued State Department interpreter for 18 years, has quit his job rather than sign a secrecy agreement. Burks, who has interpreted for Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, told The Washington Post he had quit in protest over growing government secrecy demands.

A contract interpreter, Burks had never been required to sign a secrecy agreement until last month. When the State Department told him he would have to sign a new contract in which he would promise not to reveal any information he learned in his government service, he just refused. And since he never did sign such an agreement, he has been able to tell his story to any media that will listen.

Burks was valued by the State Department because he was qualified in two difficult languages, Mandarin and Indonesian. He says he is one of three American interpreters qualified at the highest level in Indonesian.

An interesting side note: When Burks interpreted for Bush at a 2001 meeting with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarno, he told The Post, "Bush displayed such a detailed grasp of Indonesian issues at the meeting that he came away thinking the president must have been fed information through a hidden earpiece." Reminds us of a presidential debate we watched not long ago . . . .

Posted 12-09-2004 6:24 PM EDT

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Compromise Proposed on Cheney Energy Task Force

Open-government advocates launched a new initiative Nov. 30 in the long-running battle legal battle over Vice President Cheney’s energy task force. The nonprofit National Security Archive, along with several library, journalist and public interest organizations, filed a brief that points to a compromise solution that would reveal some information about the task force but allow the task force records to remain confidential.

The task force was one of the earliest, and most hotly contested, secrecy moves of the Bush administration. 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.

For more than two years, the conservative group Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club have been trying to gain access to the task force records. They believe that keeping the records secret violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Critics also believe that the task force met with energy industry lobbyists while excluding environmental, consumer and public interest input - which biased the task force’s recommendations.

While the Bush administration has lost several rounds in the courts, it has kept filing appeals. One result: The records were still locked up during the fall presidential campaign. The case is now awaiting a second hearing in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The controversy has been covered extensively in this blog.

The National Security Archive, a Washington-based nonprofit that makes public previously secret government materials, and its allies have filed an amicus curiae brief in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. They recommend that the parties work out a compromise that would accommodate the competing interests in the case. The compromise would set up a "Cheney log" providing enough information so that outsiders could tell whether non-government persons participated in the task force. That in turn determines whether the Federal Advisory Committee Act applies.

Posted 12-03-2004 11:16 AM EDT

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