WASHINGTON -- January 12 -- Yesterday the Department of Homeland Security announced that it was backing down on its earlier proposal to force employees to sign secrecy oaths that would prevent them from sharing unclassified information with the public.
Scott Amey, General Counsel of POGO, issued the following statement:
"The Department of Homeland Security's revision of its policy for handling sensitive information changes nothing. To ensure that secrecy oaths do not happen, Congress must pass legislation and make its intent known. 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.
Secrecy oaths allow government bureaucracies to hide corruption, waste, fraud, and abuse from Congress and the public. Congress has historically taken a strong stand against these secrecy oaths so that it can adequately perform its oversight role. As the 9/11 Commission report noted, public disclosure is "'democracy's best oversight mechanism.'"
Among the reasons why DHS' revised policy to prohibit public access to information is still problematic:
--DHS still prevents employees from disclosing information that is available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act. --Employees will still be threatened with discipline even though they no longer sign a nondisclosure agreement. --Non-disclosure agreements with the threat of prosecution still apply to contractors and consultants for revealing non-classified information.
--Any "employee, detailee, or contractor can designate information" that should be withheld from the public. Experts in classification have extensive training before being made responsible for classifying. Whereas only 4,000 people classify information, 180,000 employees plus thousands more contractors will be responsible for deciding what information can be disclosed to the public.
--DHS includes a catch all statement that will in practice force employees to withhold all information from the public: "Where the FOUO [For Official Use Only] marking is not present on materials known by the holder to be FOUO, the holder of the material will protect it as FOUO" (pg. 6).
Copies of the DHS memos were posted today by the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, which first exposed the secrecy oath, at: http://www.fas.org/sgp/news/secrecy/2005/01/011205.html
To learn more, see op-ed by POGO's Nick Schwellenbach and Peter Brand "Dangerous Government Secrecy Oaths at: http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20041202/news_lz4e2schwell.html
POGO investigates, exposes, and seeks to remedy systemic abuses of power, mismanagement, and subservience by the federal government to powerful special interests. Founded in 1981, POGO is a politically-independent, nonprofit watchdog that strives to promote a government that is accountable to the citizenry.