NEW YORK – The Bush administration appears set to maintain the secrecy that has characterized its workings since 2001. The latest evidence is a directive from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) instructing its employees and contractors to share sensitive but unclassified information only with those having a need to know it.
All 180,000 department employees and contractors are now required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. But they will be held responsible for keeping secrets, even if they did not sign the pledge or were unaware of it.
Further, employees and contractors can be searched at any place or any time to ensure they are abiding by the policy, and can also face administrative, civil, or criminal penalties if they violate the rules.
According to Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), whose Web site provides the details of the agreement [.pdf], the message to employees is: “We don’t want you talking to anybody outside of government.”
“A huge door is closing within our government,” added Aftergood in an interview, speculating that the DHS practice will be adopted by other government bodies.
“There are other agencies the Internal Revenue Service [IRS] is one that occasionally use non-disclosure agreements to regulate access to unclassified information. But the DHS non-disclosure agreement is more comprehensive than any of those,” he added.
“It is required not just in the odd occasional circumstance, but rather, must be signed by all new employees. And it extends not just to particular categories of controlled information, but to anything that is marked ‘for official use only.'”
So far, Aftergood added, “The DHS version of the non-disclosure policy has not been replicated by other agencies. But if it remains in place at DHS, it would be reasonable to expect other agencies to follow suit.”
Media reports say DHS officials have also asked congressional workers to sign non-disclosure guarantees, but employees from both parties have refused.
“This is unclassified material, and we have a right to it without signing over our lives,” said Ken Johnson, spokesman for Representative Christopher Cox, chairman of the House Select Homeland Security Committee, according to the media reports. “We are the overseers, not the overseen.”
Advocacy groups have also expressed concern that the new rules will eventually affect the protection of whistleblowers, individuals who report government or corporate malfeasance.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, 50 percent more government workers annually are seeking protection against retaliation for blowing the whistle on “allegations of substantial and specific dangers to public health and safety and national security concerns.”
Whistleblowers are protected by law from punishment or retaliation by those they identify. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), part of the Department of Justice (DOJ), has been a focal point for some of the highest profile whistleblowers, such as Coleen Rowley, the FBI agent whose warnings about suspicious, terrorist-related activities that were ignored by the bureau’s top management prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
The report of the 9/11 Commission that examined those attacks noted that a Cold War mentality has restricted the free flow of information and hampered the government’s ability to address terrorist threats.
On its Web site, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), another of many “open government” advocacy groups, charges that White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales nominated by President George W. Bush to be attorney general “played a leading role in attempting to chill whistleblowers who contact Congress with information about corporate fraud and abuse.”
“Within hours of signing the landmark Sarbanes-Oxley legislation to fight corporate fraud, President Bush attempted to severely narrow which whistleblowers would be covered by the Act. Gonzales defended the narrowed interpretation when Senators Charles Grassley and Patrick Leahy protested the attempt to undermine whistleblower protections they had authored.”
“Ultimately, the White House backed down on its narrowed interpretation of the Act,” concludes POGO [.pdf].
DHS’ new regulations dovetail with the environment of secrecy created by the Bush administration. During its first term, the numbers of documents designated as “classified” grew exponentially, followed by corresponding growth in requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which is designed to provide citizens with greater access to government documents.
Numerous recent instances of administration secrecy have emerged. According to The New York Times, one concerns “a previously unknown, enormously expensive technical intelligence program,” which has drawn scathing criticism from members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The newspaper reported Nov. 9, “For two years … Republicans and Democrats on the panel have voted to block the secret program, which is believed to be a system of new spy satellites.”
“But it continues to be financed at a cost that former congressional officials put at hundreds of millions of dollars a year with support from the House [of Representatives], the Bush administration, and congressional appropriations committees,” it added.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a major advocacy group, has also been critical of Bush administration secrecy.
“For months now, the Bush White House has refused to release dozens of documents related to the administration’s policies on the detention, interrogation, and torture of foreign prisoners,” it said recently, not long before a federal judge ordered the FBI to release documents related to the prisoners to the group.
The ACLU also identified Gonzales as one of the key architects of the policies on the treatment of prisoners, saying, “The nation’s top law enforcement officer should finally allow the Senate to insist on receiving these crucial documents.”
“The American people deserve to know the truth about these policies. Unless senators receive these documents, they cannot know the true story of how Gonzales’ actions relate to some of the worst violations of human rights committed by our country against foreign prisoners,” added the ACLU.
“The government keeps too many secrets,” the Washington Post declared in a Dec. 3 editorial. “It classifies information that would do no harm if published; this impedes information sharing within the government and erodes public confidence.”
The newspaper charged that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), responsible for screening aircraft as well as other forms of transport and part of the DHS, “is keeping secret rules, known as ‘security directives,’ that guide who can get on an airplane.”
“The department needs to remember that the homeland whose security it is protecting is one in which democratic debate is supposed to be open and freewheeling,” added the Post.