Congress Making Secrets Harder to Keep

The administration's ability to avoid lawsuits involving charges of illegal spying, torture and other national security-related issues may soon shrink, if congressional Democrats get their way.

The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday voted to approve a measure to restrict the executive branch's ability to use the so-called "state secrets" privilege, which it can use to avoid trials involving classified information.

The Bush administration has invoked the privilege roughly two dozen times since 2001, according to government watchdogs. The privilege allows government lawyers to argue that a case cannot be tried because it would result in the release of information that could jeopardize national security.

The measure will next go to the full Senate.

In the House, a bipartisan quartet of lawmakers introduced a similar bill in March. It has yet to be taken up by the House Judiciary Committee.

Despite charges that the current Congress is bitterly partisan and as "do-nothing" as its recent predecessors, Democrats and Republicans in the 110th have managed to move forward together on noteworthy reforms like these state secrets bills, openness and civil liberties, advocates say.

"I hate to give credit to Congress -- but I think they're doing better than they were two years ago," said American Civil Liberties Union spokeswoman Amanda Simon.

"I'd rate them, 'inadequate but not brain-dead,'" said a grudging Steve Aftergood, an anti-secrecy advocate for the Federation of American Scientists. He said he rated the last Congress simply "brain-dead."

The House yesterday passed a bill to create a public database to track the performance (and non-performance) of government contractors, in the hopes of making it easier to keep fraudulent firms from winning government business.

Last October the House passed a media shield bill, which would protect reporters and their sources from prosecution for disclosing sensitive information. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a similar bill last fall, and a bipartisan group of senators is working to get it taken up by the full Senate. In letters to Congress, the Bush administration has made clear it is staunchly opposed to the measure.

Yet despite their reputation for secrecy, even the White House has selectively chosen to play along with Congress on the openness game. Last December, Bush signed into law the bipartisan Open Government Act, which improved the way executive branch agencies handled Freedom of Information requests.

And even though President Bush opposed a congressional effort to force the public disclosure of the size of the national intelligence budget, he signed into law the bill which required it, and the number was published last year for the first time. Since 1998, when a Freedom of Information Act from Aftergood's group forced its disclosure, it was $43.5 billion.

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