The information the U. S. Justice Department is trying to hide is not being done to spare embarrassment, but it is just as dangerous to the requirements of a free and open society.
According to an article in today's New York Times, some lowlifes are going through federal court filings and finding information about government informants then selling it.
Naturally, instead of simply removing information that could lead to the uncovering of an informant's identity, government officials would like to remove all plea agreements from court filings:
Federal prosecutors are furious, and the Justice Department has begun urging the federal courts to make fundamental changes in public access to electronic court files by removing all plea agreements from them — whether involving cooperating witnesses or not.
“We are witnessing the rise of a new cottage industry engaged in republishing court filings about cooperators on Web sites such as www.whosarat.com for the clear purpose of witness intimidation, retaliation and harassment,” a Justice Department official wrote in a December letter to the Judicial Conference of the United States, the administrative and policy-making body of the federal court system.
“The posting of sensitive witness information,” the letter continued, “poses a grave risk of harm to cooperating witnesses and defendants.”
In one case described in the letter, a witness in Philadelphia was moved and the F.B.I. was asked to investigate after material from whosarat.com was mailed to his neighbors and posted on utility poles and cars in the area.
The federal court in Miami has provisionally adopted the department’s recommendation to remove plea agreements from electronic files, and other courts are considering it and experimenting with alternative approaches.
While safety concerns must be taken into consideration, it is not surprising that the current U. S. Justice Department is pushing for more secrecy. Secrecy has been the hallmark of the attorney general, and of the Bush Administration as a whole. It should not be that difficult to remove information about recognizable witnesses and informants from court files. After all, time is already being taken to remove the birthdates of all accused criminals, something which would seem to be far less important.
The biggest danger to a free society is when our elected officials and the bureaucrats in government opt for secrecy as a first refuge.