SECRECY NEWS
from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2002, Issue No. 10
January 29, 2002

A NEW TOOL FOR CONGRESSIONAL ACCESS TO INFORMATION

While officials grapple over the proper boundaries of Congressional oversight of executive branch activities, a federal court has upheld the use of an unusual statutory mechanism called the Seven Member Rule to compel agencies to disclose certain types of information to Congress.

Last year, sixteen members of the House Government Reform Committee sued the Bush Administration for access to census data that the Administration did not want to release.

The lawsuit cited the Seven Member Rule, which is a 1928 statutory provision dictating that an agency must release information if it is requested by seven members of the House Government Reform Committee (or five members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee) and concerns a matter under the Committee's jurisdiction. This provision had never before been tested in court.

In a landmark January 18 decision, the Court found the Rule valid and applicable, and ordered the requested data to be disclosed.

Rep. Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the Committee, hailed the Court decision. The Seven Member Rule could become "an important tool for the public's right to know," Waxman told the New York Times.

See the Court's ruling and related documentation here:

See also "Judge Allows Unusual Bid to Get Data from Census" by David E. Rosenbaum in the January 26 New York Times:


WHITE HOUSE SEEKS TO REVERSE "35 YEARS OF DECLINE"

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday that the Administration's refusal to disclose information requested by the General Accounting Office concerning Enron and the Vice President's Energy Task Force was a matter of high principle and was intended to reverse decades of erosion in Presidential power.

"I think it is to stop the decline of the power of the presidency that have taken place the last 35 years or so," Fleischer told the Associated Press, echoing remarks made by Vice President Cheney over the weekend.

But what was it that happened 35 years ago, years before Watergate, that initiated this supposed decline in the power of the Presidency?

The answer seems to be the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was enacted about 35 years ago, in 1966.

By granting members of the public a legal right to public information, the FOIA and related "sunshine" laws did in fact diminish the power of the President to arbitrarily withhold information and to evade public accountability. Whether this is a sign of decline or of political maturity is evidently a matter of perspective.


NASA RESUMES RELEASE OF SHUTTLE MAPPING DATA

NASA this month resumed the public release of certain highly precise digital mapping data collected by the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) in February 2000 following a moratorium on disclosure late last year.

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), which is an SRTM co-sponsor, had ordered a halt to release of the digital maps after September 11 due to security concerns, according to the Washington Post (12/17/01). The agency also withdrew certain SRTM maps of U.S. military installations and other sensitive locations from public access.

Release of the mapping data, which requires special application software for viewing, recommenced earlier this month. For further information, see the SRTM homepage here:

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Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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