Monday, May 12, 2008

Bushco's Secrecy Shame

This post by profmarcus based on a Washington Post story by Amy Goldstein and Dana Priest tells us about Yong Sun Harvill, one of 33,000 immigration detainees in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, otherwise known as ICE.

As the story tells us…

Yong Sun Harvill's immigration troubles began in March 2007, as she was finishing 13 months in prison on a drug-possession charge. One day, a prison official summoned her to his office and handed her a phone. On the line was a man who worked in Orlando for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She would not be going home, he told her. She would be handed over to ICE agents, who planned to send her back to South Korea, a place she had not seen for 32 years.
As the story also tells us, though, Harvill ended up on a Florence, AZ detention facility, where she remains to this day.

In her confinement, Harvill has developed what could be liver tumors and swelling in her left ankle so severe that it is about three times the size of her right one. Also, a doctor has indicated that she may be suffering from bipolar disorder, among other ailments.

However, thanks primarily to the Division of Immigration Health Services, she is apparently no closer to receiving care at this moment from when her confinement began (and the DIHS web site here does not tell us who is in charge, and the agency’s “Rapid Pulse” newsletter has not been published since September 2007).

The subject of immigration detainees was also brought up here by New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt yesterday, noting that Times reporter Nina Bernstein obtained information about detainee Boubacar Bah, a 52-year-old tailor from Guinea, who fell while in detention, received no medical care for 15 hours and died of severe head injuries (she wrote about Bah last Wednesday).

As Hoyt tells us…

Civil rights attorneys believed that, since the start of 2004, about 20 people had died while in custody facing possible deportation, but a spokeswoman for the federal immigration agency told Bernstein a surprising fact: the number was 62. Bernstein asked for details, like who they were and how they died. The spokeswoman refused, so Bernstein did what reporters often do — she filed a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act, known as FOIA, for what she believed should be public records. Although the law required the agency to answer such a simple request within 20 business days, Immigration and Customs Enforcement initially responded the way many agencies do — with silence.
As noted, however, Berstein eventually received some information, including details on Bah. And as Hoyt notes, at least Bernstein didn’t have to do what her colleague David Barstow did to write his excellent story on the compromised TV military analysts.

Hoyt continues…

Barstow first asked more than two years ago, on April 28, 2006, for records describing the Defense Department’s involvement with the analysts, most of them retired officers, many with business dealings with the Pentagon. He said he wanted transcripts of briefings and conference calls, records of trips and any documents describing the Pentagon’s strategy and objectives in what turned out to be a carefully planned program to try to, as Barstow’s article said, “transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse.”

As the law provides, he asked for expedited handling of his request. He was turned down, though he said the Pentagon did not tell him for a month after the decision. It said the information he wanted did not deal with “a breaking news story of public interest.”

Barstow appealed, arguing that the war on terror was by definition a breaking news story and certainly of public interest. The appeal was denied on Aug. 20, 2006, with bizarre reasoning familiar to anyone who has tried to wrest public information from a federal agency that does not want it released. “Your request is not for information on the war on terror,” the denial said. “It is for Department of Defense interactions with military and security analysts who discuss the war on terror. Therefore, you did not establish a compelling need for the information you requested.”
After information virtually trickled out of the Pentagon to Barstow, he and the Times eventually had to sue the Pentagon to release all of the promised information (the Times deserves credit for that in an era of declining newspaper revenues, as Hoyt also notes). Barstow eventually did receive much of what he asked for and then wrote his excellent story.

And though the fact that Bushco has a penchant for secrecy, to say the least, is “water wet, sky blue” stuff I realize, the following must be noted from this SPJ link…

"There's been an explosion in the classification of information," he said, "to the point where even those in the business of secrecy say it's gone too far and become counterproductive. And it is damaging to our security."

Thousands of people in government have the rank to classify information, but audits show one-third of these experts are not doing their job properly. Also, (Pete) Weitzel (a former managing editor of The Miami Herald who helped launch the National Freedom of Information Coalition and served as its second president) said, the three million other government officials who make secondary decisions take the information from the already classified documents and incorporate it into a new document.

"Imagine how many times they get it wrong," he said.

"We are going to have to remain vigilant and proactive. The alternative is greater government secrecy. That would be disastrous for us as journalists and for our country," Weitzel said.
And for a particularly repugnant episode of Bushco secrecy in action, I present the following from Greg Mitchell about the fact that Dr. Ira Katz of the VA tried to hush up the number of Iraq war veterans who have committed suicide by circulation an inter-agency Email with “Shh!” on the subject line (nice – please see the first item here with the photo of U.S. Dem Senator Patty Murray).

And by the way, don’t think that John W. McBush would be any less inclined to behave this way, given the fact that he won’t answer questions on the EADS tanker deal that ended up costing about 44,000 jobs in this country (here), as well as the fact that he won’t talk about the non-disclosure of an Email concerning a possible connection between convicted fundraiser Jack Abramoff and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (here).

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