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November 30, 2004

Activists Crawl Through Web to Untangle US Secrecy

by William Fisher

NEW YORK - To combat the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy, U.S. citizens have been forced to unearth new sources for information they once read in their daily newspapers. But thanks to a few dedicated individuals and not-for-profit groups – and the Internet – such material is easier to come by than ever before.

"The Bush administration has taken secrecy to a new level. They have greatly increased the numbers and types of classified documents," says Steven Aftergood, who conducts one of the most widely used "open government" programs – the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) Project on Government Secrecy.

"They have made it far more difficult and time-consuming to obtain documents under the Freedom of Information Act [FOIA]. And they have imposed 'gag rules' on an ever-widening group of government employees," Aftergood added in an interview.

"Open government" sites on the World Wide Web provide a wide variety of information.

For example, on the Internet pages of George Washington University's National Security Archive, you can read Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) manuals from the 1960s and the 1980s specifying approved methods of prisoner abuse as well as one of the last major pieces of the puzzle explaining U.S. and UK roles in the August 1953 coup against Iranian Premier Mohammad Mossadegh.

Or, just posted, the telephone conversations of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, berating high-level subordinates for their efforts in 1976 to restrain human rights abuses by military dictators in Chile and Argentina.

OpenTheGovernment.org is a new coalition of 33 organizations dedicated to combating unwarranted government secrecy and promoting freedom of information.

Among recent postings on that site: an evaluation by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on "the likely impact of attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales on press freedoms and the public's right to know," based on Reporters Committee research of Gonzales' performance as a judge on the Texas Supreme Court from January 1999 to December 2000 and as White House counsel since January 2001.

The FAS Project on Government Secrecy publishes Secrecy News, which recently disclosed: "Americans can now be obligated to comply with legally-binding regulations that are unknown to them, and that indeed they are forbidden to know."

As an example, the Web site reports the effort of a former conservative member of Congress to board a commercial airplane. "She was pulled aside by airline personnel for additional screening, including a pat-down search for weapons or unauthorized materials. She requested a copy of the regulation authorizing such pat-downs, and was told that she couldn't see it."

Why? "Because we don't have to," said an official of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). "That is called 'sensitive security information.' She's not allowed to see it, nor is anyone else," he added, according to Secrecy News. "She refused to go through additional screening [without seeing the regulation] and was not allowed to fly."

According to Aftergood, the "variety of Internet-based sources has increased substantially during the Bush administration. Freedom of Information Act requests are on the rise, passing three million for the first time last year."

"What is behind all of these phenomena is a growing public appetite for official records," he argues. "That is a healthy impulse that in a democracy should be respected and cultivated, not scorned."

Another site, BushSecrecy.org, sponsored by the highly respected Public Citizen organization, chronicles and documents the administration's obsession with secrecy, as well as steps being taken to fight it.

The Web site provides a variety of electronic links to up-to-date summaries of each of the administration's major secrecy initiatives, with additional links from those summaries to key documents, such as executive orders, congressional materials, judicial decisions, and legal briefs filed by both sides in the court battles raging over these issues.

The new Coalition of Journalists for Open Government has been established "to provide timely information on freedom of information issues and on what journalism organizations are doing to foster greater transparency in government."

The coalition's Web site reports "the Department of Homeland Security is requiring all of its 180,000 employees and others outside the federal government to sign binding non-disclosure agreements covering unclassified information. Breaking the agreement could mean loss of job, stiff fines, and imprisonment."

Like many "open government" Web sites, the coalition distributes a free e-mail newsletter. Other sites charge for documents. One such is InsideDefense.com, which provides primary source documents gathered by a team of Pentagon reporters, and issues a free weekly publication, The Insider, to alert readers to new documents.

The FAS government secrecy project recently provided a sampling of other Internet sources. A few examples:

- GlobalSecurity.org, which says it provides "bottomless resources on all aspects of national security policy, and then some;"

- The Resource Shelf offers news on all aspects of government information policy and links to valuable source documents;

- The Memory Hole collects and publishes elusive records and documents that have been withdrawn from the public domain;

- Cryptome promises a rich collection of new official and unofficial documents on security policy;

- Project on Government Oversight performs independent investigations to promote openness and government accountability;

- Electronic Privacy Information Center offers declassified documents and insights on cryptography policy and privacy; and

- Nautilus Institute's Global Disclosure Project specializes in nuclear weapons policy and strategy.

Some "open government" Web sites are maintained by individuals, usually associated with universities. For example, the Guide to Declassified Documents and Archival Materials for U.S. Foreign Policy and World Politics, a roadmap to declassified foreign policy records, is the work of David N. Gibbs of the University of Arizona.

FOI.net provides resources on national and foreign freedom of information law from Alasdair Roberts of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

Has the proliferation of these Web sites had an impact on Bush administration policies?

"Almost all of the recent statistical trends are negative, i.e., in the direction of greater secrecy," says Aftergood. "So it would probably be an exaggeration to say this work on challenging government secrecy has had much of an impact on the government during the current administration."

"The real value of the work lies in the fact that it represents the creation of alternate channels for public access to government information," he adds.

"These efforts to provide new means of access are not exactly the solution to government secrecy, but they are a constructive response that leaves the public less vulnerable to official secrecy than it otherwise would be," according to Aftergood.

Most other observers interested in open government agree the Bush administration is unlikely to change its attitude toward fuller disclosure, and they predict the number of alternative sources will continue to grow.

But even the continuing proliferation of new information sources will not correct some of the problems arising from excessive government secrecy.

For example, Timothy H. Edgar, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) told IPS: "Basic information that is crucial to oversight of the government's new spy powers under the PATRIOT Act – such as how it is using new powers to obtain personal records – has been cloaked in secrecy, making it impossible to judge the effectiveness of these powers or their impact on civil liberties."

(Inter Press Service)

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  • William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.

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