Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Where the Sun Don't Shine 

Via Thealguy at Ramblings from My Mind: The Bush Administration continues to employ its most versatile tool, the threat of terrorism, in its ongoing effort to cut you-the-citizen out of the governing process altogether:
The Department of Homeland Security is requiring thousands of employees and contractors to sign nondisclosure agreements that prohibit them from sharing sensitive but unclassified information with the public.

The department was rebuffed, however, when it also tried to require congressional aides to sign the secrecy pledges as a condition for gaining access to certain materials, majority and minority spokesmen for the House Select Committee on Homeland Security said yesterday.

DHS spokeswoman Valerie Smith said in an interview that all 180,000 employees and contractors are being required to sign the three-page forms as part of working for the agency, a policy formalized in May. State and local security officials are asked to sign the statement for classified information only . . . .

But congressional critics and government watchdog organizations such as the Federation of American Scientists call the policy a potentially precedent-setting expansion of official secrecy whose provisions are overly broad and unworkable, if not unconstitutional.

Steven Aftergood, editor of the federation's newsletter, which reported the policy last week, said the DHS is sweeping whole categories of government information under restrictions previously used only for classified data. Such categories include "official use only" and "law enforcement sensitive."

"Its likely consequence will be to chill even the most mundane interactions between department employees and reporters or the general public," said Aftergood, who obtained a copy of the form under the Freedom of Information Act. "Employees will naturally fear that even the most trivial conversation could mean a violation of this draconian agreement, and so the result will be a new wall between the government and the public."

The form defines as "sensitive" any information that could "adversely affect the national interest or the conduct of federal programs" or violate a person's privacy, a much lower barrier than damaging national security.

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

Scott Armstrong, representing U.S. newspapers and journalist groups, said the agreement imposes no limit on how long information can be restricted, and allows data to be declared sensitive or official "at the whim of any bureaucrat."
Julia of Sisyphus Shrugged points out that Homeland Security employees are already denied the whistleblower protections enjoyed by most federal employees.

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