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Foreign Policy In Focus

Of Secrecy and Sex in Washington

Dan Smith

If it's August, there must be something the White House is trying to slip by the Congress and the public.

The patterns were there long before the Bush administration was a jot - let alone a tittle - on the pages of U.S. history.

  • Congress invariably is in recess and many members are traveling abroad;
  • Parents, distracted by the need to prepare for the approaching school year, find themselves beset by children's pleas for another day or two at the amusement park;
  • Hurricanes often (but not always) are prolific, but the month is always hot and humid;
  • The president is spending "down time" either at Camp David or at the "family" home, but that does not stop him making recess appointments that would not get through Senate confirmation.;
  • The big names in the media are also "on break" - barring a major disaster.

In short, the federal government seems torpid, weighed down by the now invisible miasma that, in the early days of the nation, would rise from the shores of the Potomac at the aptly named Foggy Bottom, driving all who could afford the expense to leave for high ground.

One highly controversial practice is the use of regulatory agencies within the Executive Branch to by-pass the constitutional procedures for enacting laws. Incidences of this practice skyrocketed after passage of the USAPATRIOT Act and other "anti-terror" legislation. Pleading the exigencies of the president's self-declared "global war on terror," Washington has been buried under a virtual blizzard of presidential findings and directives and administrative rulings by government mediators, adjudicators and judges in independent agencies. These little-noticed but far-reaching changes to procedures that private citizens, companies, or other organizations must follow in interactions with federal government agencies can be amended later but are rarely revoked.

One such ruling in effect for two years requires U.S. charitable, humanitarian, research, or policy-oriented organizations (e.g., educational anti-war groups) that receive financial support from U.S. foundations to certify in writing that none of their employees have any connections with terrorism or terror organizations.

A new wrinkle, due to take effect August 27, requires charities and other non-governmental organizations that receive funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide personal information - birth dates, telephone numbers, email addresses and other data - on individuals occupying key positions in these organizations. Ostensibly, this is - again - to be able to ferret out any one with ties to terrorists and terrorism.

As usual, there is no information on who proposed the rule or why - beyond the by now boilerplate language about terrorism. What standards are to be used, what exceptions (if any) might be made, and what office will conduct any inquiry also remains unknown. Nor is there any indication of when, if ever, the Administration intends to reveal how the information will be used. No information is provided about what procedures prospective recipients denied funding can use to determine why they were turned down, or even how to ensure that the government corrects erroneous information it might have received, such as identical names of a key officer in a charity and another individual with a "connection" to a terrorist group. Our nation's history of problems with blacklists should be raising a host of red flags.

The possibilities for misuse of this data are legion. One that springs readily to mind would deny government funds to any organization that sends delegations to countries, such as Syria and Iran, designated as "state sponsors of terror" as part of "Track II" or public diplomacy - especially should a delegation be invited to meet a prominent government official once the group arrives in the country. Under this new proposal, a religious group or national church denomination involved in a peace delegation to Iran could be denied government support for other activities completely unrelated to Iran such as feeding the hungry in Africa.

The new USAID restrictions are another effort to discourage legitimate non-government and civil society organizations from trying to advance development, humanitarian, and peace agendas in areas ravaged by human folly, natural disasters, and war. And once the information is collected, it will not be destroyed. That was made clear last Tuesday when the Pentagon announced it was ending the TALON program that had been collecting information on the activities of individuals, religious denominations, and other organizations that engage in peaceful anti-war protests. But the Pentagon also said that the data would not be destroyed. Instead, a "copy" will be stored at the Pentagon for "record-keeping purposes."

If the information were collected illegally, it would seem that it is equally illegal to retain it. Simply to "stop analyzing" the data is only a partial measure, not the full step that would redress the invasion of civil liberties that became a feature of this "anti-terror" program.

One thing seems clear: there are too many people in this administration spending too much time creating obstacles to the vital participation of civil society in relieving the suffering of millions of men, women and children who desperately need America's help. Another headline earlier this week illustrates this point perfectly: "White House Manual Details How to Deal With Protestors."

Of course, it may be that some in the Administration are so driven by fear that they are unable to get life's priorities in order. They might find some useful guidance in another front page story in a recent edition of the Washington Post: "Elderly Staying Sexually Active" - especially the observation that,"There's no reason to believe they [older people] give up the basic human desire for love and intimacy....This just shows that the light ...the flame doesn't go out."

Be assured, the light of love diminishes not one jot or tittle.

Col. Dan Smith is a Senior Analyst at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

© 2007 Foreign Policy In Focus

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