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Project on Government Oversight




Statement by POGO's Danielle Brian for Briefing on Growing Government Secrecy & the Sibel Edmonds Case

April 20, 2005 


Statement of Danielle Brian, Executive Director, Project On Government Oversight

For two decades I have worked in Washington, DC as a journalist, a Capitol Hill staff member, and an advocate for open and accountable government. In all that time, I have seen over and over again that when the government is doing something wrong, it goes to great lengths to hide its misconduct from the public. That was our experience at the Project On Government Oversight a decade ago when we conducted an investigation that exposed illegal burning of toxic chemicals in open air pits at the super secret Air Force base Area 51 in Nevada. Some workers had even died from exposure to these chemicals, but incredibly the government tried to pretend the base did not exist. This forced POGO to have to prove, in court, that the military base existed.  POGO found an Area 51 employee manual on the internet showing workers where to park, when to take a lunch break, etc. The manual should have forced the Air Force to admit the existence of Area 51. Instead, however, the Air Force retroactively classified the manual and claimed that, because POGO now had "classified" documents in our offices, we would have to turn over all our office files to the government. (Which we did not). The move prompted the Washington Post's Al Kamen to write a column entitled "Glasnost on the Potomac."

But this is just one of a half dozen cases where the government went on the attack – essentially becoming a bully – when POGO challenged excessive government secrecy while defending whistleblowers who are exposing wrongdoing. Those attacks have ranged from having Department of Interior and Department of Energy federal agents coming to our door demanding to know our sources, being threatened with going to jail by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and attempts to hold us in Contempt of Congress for not turning over our phone records.

But we are an entire organization.  Sibel Edmonds is just one person.  It takes Herculean strength for an individual to fight back when the government is in the wrong. When the FBI confirmed many of Sibel's allegations in an unclassified briefing with Senate staff, Senators Grassley and Leahy issued letters questioning the FBI. Rather than working to fix the problems Sibel was exposing, however, the FBI tried to cover its tracks.  They retroactively classified what had already been on the internet for years. We wanted to help bring attention to Sibel's case by putting these documents up on our website, but couldn't given their new status as classified.  POGO was fortunate to have legal representation from David Vladeck of the Georgetown University's Institute for Public Representation and Michael Kirkpatrick of Public Citizen. Our legal team helped us to file suit challenging the FBI over its illegal retroactive classification of information that confirmed Sibel Edmonds' allegations. The Justice Department apparently knew that it would lose in court, as they caved in the day before our hearing.

POGO's experience in these cases shows that the public can not assume that the FBI and the Justice Department will make the best decisions about what can be kept secret. Government agencies will always try to hide their failures through their power to withhold information. In the age of terrorism, excessive secrecy can put lives at risk. We can no longer assume that more secrecy will protect our national security.  It is only through the strength of individuals such as Sibel to challenge excessive secrecy that the government's tendency to abuse its power will be kept in check. 

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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