The Bush administration is trying to make its proposed new Homeland Security Department “above the law and outside the checks and balances these laws are put there to ensure,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the most senior members of Congress, charged on June 26.

“I am concerned that the administration’s proposal would exempt the new department from many legal requirements that apply to other agencies,” including the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), conflict of interest and accountability rules for advisors, and whistleblower protection, Leahy told Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge at Judiciary Committee hearings on the proposed cabinet-level department.

The White House wants to exclude the new department from FOIA disclosure requirements, drastically limiting its responsibility to answer public questions. It wants to keep secret the information that companies (e.g., airlines, energy corporations) voluntarily turn over on critical security vulnerabilities. It wants the department’s advisory committees to be exempt from citizen input, which is normally required for such committees. It also wants to allow corporate officers to be advisers to the new department without going through the conflict-of-interest screening that regular government employees are subject to.

This is an “ill-considered and overly broad new exemption to the FOIA,” Leahy charged. “Encouraging government complicity with private firms to indefinitely keep secrets … may reduce the incentive to find solutions and fix problems.”

Similar concerns were voiced by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which said the proposed new department “represents a threat to the American tradition of open government.”

“If you like the idea of a government agency that is 100 percent secret and 0 percent accountable, you’ll love the new Homeland Security Department,” Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel, said June 25.

The ACLU is urging the public to insist that Congress reject the portions of the proposal that exclude the new department from FOIA and whistleblower protections. The ACLU also says that, given the enormous potential power concentrated in the proposed department, Congress must ensure that any such agency has a strong independent inspector-general empowered to investigate any allegations of internal abuse.

Leahy expressed skepticism about the timing of the administration’s homeland security department proposal, saying the plan was “born in secrecy and rushed to the stage … on the same day this committee was hearing powerful testimony from a whistleblower [FBI agent Colleen Rowley] about intelligence failures.”

He warned that transfer of vital non-security functions to the new security department could jeopardize those functions, and also expressed concern that the Bush administration would use the new department as an excuse to cut government employees and undermine their pay.

While the Senate committee debated government secrecy and accountability, the Supreme Court on June 28 blocked the opening of immigration hearings for foreign terrorism suspects. The Bush administration claims that national security would be threatened if reporters and others are allowed to attend the hearings.

The ACLU and numerous other civil liberties and human rights groups are trying to obtain information about non-citizens who have been held by the Immigration and Naturalization Service since Sept. 11. Civil liberties activists charge that under cover of secrecy the detainees’ rights are being violated and in some cases they are being physically mistreated. A U.S. district judge ruled in May that the government could close hearings on a case-by-case basis, but the Bush administration wants a blanket policy closing all of these hearings, claiming national security is at stake.

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Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.