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Leaked bill proposal would increase terrorism action secrecy

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information    

Leaked bill proposal would increase terrorism action secrecy

  • Judiciary Committee members in Congress told the Justice Department that they object to a draft proposed bill circulating through the department that would codify requirements for more government secrecy in terrorism investigations.

Feb. 20, 2003 — Democratic members of both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees sharply criticized draft language to amend and extend the USA PATRIOT Act circulating within the Department of Justice because it would increase government secrecy and establish new curbs on civil liberties.

The Center for Public Integrity on Feb. 7 released a copy of the draft legislative proposal scheduled to circulate within the department the following week . Charles Lewis, director of that Washington, D.C.-based public interest group, discussed the leaked document that night on Bill Moyer’s “Now” on PBS.

On Feb. 10, House Judiciary Committee Democrats in a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft signed by Representatives John Conyers (D-Mich), Roger Scott (D-Va.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) expressed “profound disappointment” that there had been no consultations with that committee in drafting the bill.

Ranking minority on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), said early administration signals for revising the PATRIOT Act are “ominous.” The process of writing the bill should be “open and accountable” and “not shrouded in secrecy,” he said, and the public must be allowed to freely debate the merits of any new government powers.

Barbara Comstock, Justice Department public affairs director, immediately issued a statement defending the process. She said the department would be derelict if it did not continually consider anti-terrorism measures and that this proposal was still in “internal deliberations” that had not been presented either to Ashcroft nor to the White House.

Public interest groups that analyzed the 86-page draft this week found troubling new requirements for government secrecy.

Washington, D.C.-based public interest group OMB Watch said the bill would “greatly constrain” the free flow of information and allow people in official positions to be imprisoned for revealing the existence of an anti-terrorism investigation.

The draft bill also would codify prohibitions against the release of information about detainees in terrorism investigations. A federal district court in Washington, D.C., ruled in January that the public is entitled to much of that information but that decision is stayed pending appeal.

It would reduce public access to information on “worst-case scenario” reports by facilities which use large amounts of hazardous chemicals and could cause catastrophic harm to nearby communities.

And it would expand civil immunity for corporations and employees who provide information on “vulnerabilities” to federal law enforcement agencies. It would prohibit the government from releasing that information. This provision is similar to a controversial provision in the new Homeland Security Act, which makes secret information provided by corporations regarding the critical infrastructure. However, that prohibition only applies to information held by the new Homeland Security Department.

A more detailed section-by-section analysis of the draft released by the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C. also criticizes “contentious” secrecy provisions that limit defense attorneys from using secret evidence and gag grand jury witnesses from discussing their testimony in terrorism investigations with the media or the general public.

The ACLU analysis also enumerates what it determines would be increased threats to civil liberties, including several provisions that would allow freer surveillance of individuals.

RD


© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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