June 23, 2004
Attorney General’s Reclassification of Information Critical of FBI Is Illegal
Project On Government Oversight Has Right to Inform Public of Problems at FBI, Lawsuit Says
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) sued Attorney General John Ashcroft and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) today over the DOJ’s reclassification of information that alleges corruption, incompetence and cover-ups in an FBI translation unit. Public Citizen and Georgetown University Law Center professor David Vladeck are representing POGO.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asks the court to find the DOJ’s May reclassification of information unlawful and unconstitutional and require the agency to declassify the information. The information relates to allegations made by whistleblower Sibel Edmonds, a former FBI linguist who was fired after reporting to superiors numerous instances of wrongdoing in the FBI translation unit where she worked.
This information was presented by the FBI during two unclassified 2002 briefings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee and was referenced in letters from U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to DOJ officials. The letters were posted on the senators’ Web sites, but were removed after the DOJ reclassified the information. POGO has the letters and wants to post them on the Web to initiate public debate.
“We believe the Department of Justice reclassified the information to stifle congressional oversight of the department and shield it from legitimate public inquiry,” said Danielle Brian, POGO’s executive director. “It is absurd to reclassify information that has been in the public domain for so long. This is an entirely inappropriate use of the classification system.”
According to the lawsuit, the DOJ failed to comply with the requirements of Executive Order 12958, as amended by Executive Order 13292, which provides that information may be reclassified only if the information may be reasonably recoverable and the reclassification is reported to the Director of the Information Security Oversight Office. The suit contends that the information is not reasonably recoverable because it was posted on the Web and remains available on numerous Web sites. Further, the DOJ’s reclassification of the information was not reported promptly to the Director of the Information Security Oversight Office.
In addition, the DOJ has violated POGO’s First Amendment rights, according to the lawsuit. The reclassification of the documents “has stifled public discussion regarding the adequacy of the FBI’s translation capabilities and Ms. Edmonds’ reports of problems in the translation unit,” it says.
Public Citizen got involved in this case because “the reclassification of information that is so widely available to the public is a new step in John Ashcroft’s push for secrecy,” said Michael Kirkpatrick, the Public Citizen attorney handling the case. “We have been doing national security litigation for more than 30 years, and in our view, this is the most egregious misuse of the classification authority we’ve seen. Classification is to keep secret information that is sensitive. It is not to suppress debate over widely public information. Yet that is exactly what Ashcroft is doing.”
To view the lawsuit, click here.