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May 10, 2011

Wasn't my idea...

Judge Cormac J. Carney, a district court judge in California has determined that the Department of Justice misled the court regarding the existence of records relative to a FOIA dispute, claiming that the “government’s representations were then, and remain today, blatantly false.”  The case surrounds  a 2007 FOIA request sent by the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California and the Council on American-Islamic Relations requesting materials pertaining to FBI monitoring of Muslim groups in Southern California.  After a series of rejections and limited releases of heavily redacted documents, Judge Carney requested to see all FBI materials potentially responsive to the groups’ request to assess the legitimacy of the government’s interests in preventing disclosure for national security reasons.  It was later revealed that the government, in preparing these documents for Judge Carney, omitted select portions to avoid “compromising national security.”  In his Wednesday ruling, Carney affirmed the government’s right to protect the documents from disclosure under FOIA, but berated the Justice Department for initially attempting to prevent review of the materials by the court, saying, “The government cannot, under any circumstance, affirmatively mislead the court.”

NARA’s Information Security Oversight Office, which broadly monitors and reports to the President annually on the entirety of the government’s classification efforts, has released its 2010 Annual Report to the President and its 2010 Cost Report.  The reports contains a host of interesting statistics and a comprehensive assessment of executive agencies’ implementation of Executive Order 13526, which set new regulations regarding the classification system and was signed by President Obama in December of 2009.   The report found that only 19 of 41 agencies had implemented the order in any final form and asserted that, “it is clear that the means by which agencies modify and issue implementing regulations are not sufficient to accommodate changes in national security policy. ISOO sees this as the biggest impediment to implementing the reforms called for by the President and as a real threat to the efficient and effective implementation of the overall classification system.”  Separately, the Cost Report indicates that total government classification costs increased by 15 percent from $8.81 billion to $10.17 billion, blaming the increase on costs associated with the “implementation of Executive Order 13526.”

House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa is continuing his fledgling assault on the Obama Administration’s openness efforts.  Issa claims that White House employees can too easily avoid public scrutiny and the judgmental eye of history by conducting official communication via personal email accounts rather than using the official White House email system, which automatically archives all communication.  Issa argues that the voluntary system of employee archiving of work-related emails from personal accounts is insufficient.  Staunch Issa-foil Elijah Cummings retorts that “What more can be done?” he asked. “Can we ban people from carrying personal cellphones? … Do we really want to create such an extreme Big Brother mentality like this?”

Following Issa’s lead in attacking the Obama administration’s transparency efforts, Republican Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight Subcommittee claims that White House staffers routinely avoid White House visitor disclosure requirements by meeting lobbyists at Caribou Coffee.  Democratic Representative Henry Waxman alleges that the Republicans efforts are “not about open government. It’s about politics.”

Separately, Issa is investigating whether senior officials at the Department of Justice had knowledge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms’ (ATF) controversial “Operation Fast and Furious” (yes, like the Vin Deisel movie), whereby ATF allowed the sale and transfer of hundreds of guns to “straw purchasers” with ties to Mexican drug cartels, hoping to track illicit arms supply routes between the U.S. and Mexico.  While several whistle-blowers have sought to drawn attention to the program, the lid was ultimately blown when a U.S. border patrol agent was shot and killed using weapons linked to the controversial program.  Republican Senator Chuck Grassley argued that “At worst, our own government knowingly participated in arming criminals, drug cartels and those who later killed federal agents.”  Attorney General Eric Holder denied Grassley’s allegations, saying, “The notion that somehow or other this Justice Department is responsible for those deaths that you mentioned — that assertion is offensive.”

Last Thursday, the Wall Street Journal launched its own leak website called WSJ Safehouse to allow potential whistle blowers to confidentially leak “newsworthy contracts, correspondence, emails, financial records or databases from companies, government agencies or non-profits.”  Since then, the website has undergone a series of upgrades in response to critics who claim that its  interface does not adequately protect user confidentiality.  According to Managing Editor Kevin Delaney, “You can’t offer absolute security or anonymity because it’s a technical product, but we’ve designed it to minimize the risk of security issues.”

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