Leaders of two government unions called on Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to stop requiring all 180,000 department workers to sign nondisclosure agreements that prohibit them from sharing sensitive but unclassified information with the public.
Citing "unprecedented restrictions and conditions on the free speech rights" of federal employees, Colleen M. Kelley, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), and John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), warned that they would contest the constitutionality of the secrecy pledges unless Ridge rescinds a May 11 directive ordering their use.
The three-page forms "cover a virtually unlimited universe of information that is relevant to important matters of public concern and whose disclosure would have no adverse impact upon the national security," they wrote Ridge in a Nov. 23 letter released yesterday.
Any Department of Homeland Security employee can stamp a document "for official use only" and bar it from disclosure, Gage and Kelley wrote, providing "a convenient device for officials to suppress and cover up evidence of their own misconduct or malfeasance."
A DHS official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of internal discussions, said yesterday that the agency is "reviewing the concerns raised in the letter as it relates to department policy."
"The notion that the agreement would be used to cover up evidence of wrongdoing is baseless," Ridge spokeswoman Valerie Smith said, citing "a number of measures afforded by the whistle-blower protections and other congressional actions."
"The nondisclosure agreements do not limit the dissemination of information in any way. They simply educate employees about the inherent sensitivity of certain information, and the need to protect that information," she said. Employees are obliged to protect sensitive information whether or not they sign the form, and official-use documents are subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, she said.
All employees and contractors must sign the forms as a condition of working for the agency. The form has been distributed to new hires and enforced mainly among DHS headquarters staff, Smith said.
The NTEU and AFGE represent more than 60,000 DHS workers.
The DHS document restricts disclosure of several new types of government information beyond classified data, the category "law enforcement sensitive."
The form defines as "sensitive" any information that could "adversely affect the national interest or the conduct of federal programs," a much lower barrier than damaging national security. The definition also includes information that would violate a person's privacy.
Violators risk administrative, disciplinary, criminal and civil penalties. One provision provides that signers consent to government inspections "at any time or place" to ensure compliance.
Although NTEU and AFGE officials said their members appreciate the need to safeguard certain information, the policy's broad language is "clearly illegal" and threatens employees' free-speech rights and guarantees against unreasonable searches.
Gregory O'Duden, NTEU general counsel, said the policy could stifle public discussion of border security staffing, cargo inspections, air passenger screening, training of federal agents and other issues.