Policy and News Updates for July 25, 2007

Policy Updates

In This Issue:

I. Agencies ignore safety concerns
II. Improving the classification system


I. Agencies ignore safety concerns
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are both the targets of separate investigations after cover ups of unsafe conditions were revealed.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee conducted an investigation of FEMA’s response to reports of toxic gas in trailers it provided to hurricane victims. In March 2006, news articles reported high levels of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers provided to as many as 120,000 families. Despite being encouraged by field staff to take action, FEMA did not initiate testing of the trailers. Rep. Tom Davis, Ranking Member of the Oversight Committee, released a compilation of emails showing that FEMA officials rejected calls for testing because of concerns that FEMA would be held liable. FEMA recently announced that it asked federal health officials to help assess the trailers.

Meanwhile, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has directed the Transportation Department to investigate reports that air traffic controllers at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport have covered up mistakes so that the Federal Aviation Administration could report lower numbers of errors. A report by two whistleblowers charges that the controllers were contributing to covering up mistakes by blaming pilots for errors such as allowing planes to fly too close together. The Dallas Morning News provides an in-depth story and links to the OSC report and U.S. Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch’s letters to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters.

II. Improving the classification system
On July 12, the House Select Committee on Intelligence’s subcommittee on Intelligence Community Management held an open hearing on classification issues featuring a distinguished panel of experts. J. William Leonard of the Information Security Oversight Office, Meredith Fuchs of the National Security Archive, and Steven Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists testified about the classification and declassification of national security information. The National Security Archive and the Federation of American Scientists are both partners of the OpenTheGovernment.org coalition. Written statements are available and the hearing can be viewed online.

The system for safeguarding classified national security information is governed by Executive Order 12958 as amended in 2003 by Executive Order 13292. The amendment provided agencies an additional three and a half years to address the backlog of unreviewed 25-year-old classified records prior to the onset of automatic declassification at the end of 2006. As part of the Director of National Intelligence’s 100-day plan, the White House and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) are currently considering modifications to Executive Order 12958.

Chairwoman Anna Eshoo [D-CA] asked the panelists to address the societal costs of overclassification. Fuchs said that in circumstances where things are classified that should not be classified, disrespect of the system and leaks to the press often occur. Overclassification also leads to public suspicion. Without proper oversight or consequences, problems such as the improper reclassification of public documents by agencies have occurred.

Leonard suggested that in order to stop the misuse of the classification system, the culture must change so that people are held accountable for improperly restricting information. Leonard also offered up new data from the Information Security Oversight Office’s (ISOO) Annual Report to the President, which found that combined classification activity (original and derivative) grew from 14.2 million classification actions in 2005 to 20.5 million classification actions in 2006.

Aftergood offered several suggestions to improve the classification and declassification system, including that Inspectors General could conduct audits of declassification and classification activity within agencies.

News from Coalition Partners and Others

Report: Government secrecy on the rise
The United States has faced an unprecedented rise in government secrecy over the last six years, according to a report released by OpenTheGovernment.org and People For the American Way Foundation. Government Secrecy: Decisions Without Democracy 2007 is an updated version of the 1987 primer on the expansion of executive power and government secrecy. The report explains the benefits of openness and the costs of excessive secrecy, and offers suggestions for what Congress and the public can do. The report includes a preface written by former Congressman Bob Barr and former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta.

POGO Releases Federal Contractor Misconduct Database
POGO released an improved and more user-friendly Federal Contractor Misconduct Database (FCMD). The new database compiles instances of misconduct involving the top 50 federal contractors to highlight how risky contractors continue to receive taxpayer funds, and includes the source documents for each instance, drawing primarily from government documents.

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