Archive for the ‘Secret Law’ Category

TSA fines “Naked American Hero” $500

Saturday, April 5th, 2014

The TSA has assessed a $500 civil penalty against “Naked American Hero” John Brennan, who removed all his clothes at a TSA checkpoint at the Portland, Oregon, airport in 2012 to show that he wasn’t carrying any weapons or explosives and in protest of the TSA’s practices.

Mr. Brennan was arrested at PDX airport by Portland police on April 17, 2012, but he was found not guilty of criminal charges in June 2012 by a county judge on the grounds that, under local Portland ordinances and Oregon state law, nakedness for purposes of political protest is not a crime.

After Mr. Brennan’s acquittal, a TSA investigator proposed that he be penalized $1000 for “interfering” with TSA screening.  In accordance with a memorandum of understanding between the TSA and the Coast Guard, the TSA has delegated its administrative authority to determine whether to assess such a penalty, and if so, the amount of the penalty, to an “Administrative Law Judge” (ALJ) from the U.S. Coast Guard.

(Why the Coast Guard? The TSA doesn’t have any ALJs on its own payroll, so it contracts out their functions with respect to TSA decisions to the Coast Guard as a parallel component of the DHS.)

Coast Guard ALJ George J. Jordan presided over a formal administrative hearing which we attended and reported on in Portland on May 14, 2013.

Almost a year after that hearing and almost two years after the underlying events at the airport, ALJ Jordan has finally issued an initial decision to assess a $500 penalty (reduced from the $1000 proposed by the TSA investigator) along with a set of findings of fact and conclusions of law.

Contrary to some headlines, no court has yet considered, much less upheld, the TSA’s decision, and no independent third party has yet reviewed, much less ruled on, the TSA’s complaint against Mr. Brennan.

Both the terminology and the TSA’s outsourcing of its own internal decision-making to Coast Guard employees make it easy to misunderstand what has happened.

Just as the checkpoint staff the TSA calls “Transportation Security Officers” are not law enforcement officers, so-called “Administrative Law Judges” are not judges or officers of any court. The “formal administrative hearing” was held in a courtroom (rented for the day by the TSA from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court), but it was not a trial and was not a proceeding of any actual court.

ALJ Jordan was acting not as an independent party, but as a DHS employee subcontracted by the TSA (only because the TSA doesn’t have its own ALJs, not because this was required) to make the TSA’s own initial, internal decision.  ALJ Jordan’s decision was issued on behalf of, and under the authority of, the TSA itself, as the TSA’s own initial decision on the complaint of its own investigator.

Almost two years after he was arrested, Mr. Brennan’s only day in any court has been when he was acquitted of all criminal charges in county court. ALJ Jordan’s initial decision on behalf of the TSA will be subjected to further internal review by the head of the TSA or his designee. Only after that review will the TSA’s final internal decision, as made by the head of the agency or his designee, be subject to review by any court or outside body.

ALJ Jordan explicitly recognized that he had no authority to consider whether Mr. Brennan’s conduct was protected by the First Amendment or whether the TSA’s regulations or actions were otherwise invalid. Only after the ALJ’s initial decision is reviewed internally within the TSA, and the TSA issues its final order, will Mr. Brennan be entitled to petition a Circuit Court of Appeals to review and make initial rulings on those issues.

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District Court dismisses complaint in Mocek v. Albuquerque

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Judge James O. Browning of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico has dismissed Phillip Mocek’s complaints against the city of Albuquerque, the Albuquerque Police Department, and the individual Albuquerque police officers who falsely arrested him (at the behest of the TSA) in 2009 at a TSA checkpoint at the Albuquerque Sunport, improperly seized and tried to delete his digital recordings that provided the best evidence of their misconduct, and filed false reports about what had happened.

Mr. Mocek had arrived at the airport with a valid ticket but without any government-issued ID credentials. He was trying to exercise his right to travel through a public facility and by common carrier, and to document the process of flying without showing government-issued ID credentials. (More about Mocek v. Albuquerque et al.)

Mr. Mocek has until April 29, 2014, to decide whether to appeal any or all of the District Court’s rulings to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

We’ll have more to say about the District Court’s latest decision once Mr. Mocek decides whether to appeal.

More no-fly and “watchlist” cases on track (slowly) toward trial

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

The decision last week by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Arjmand v. DHS sets another challenge to a DHS “watchlist” on track toward a trial on the merits in Federal District Court, this time in Los Angeles.

Equally or more importantly, this decision reaffirms and extends the rejection by the Courts of Appeals, perhaps especially the 9th Circuit, of the government’s attempt to avoid a trial on the merits of “watchlisting” decisions or the Constitutionality of the system of extrajudicial administrative “watchlists” that includes the “no-fly” list.

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UN Human Rights Committee calls on US to effectuate the ICCPR

Friday, March 28th, 2014

Following two days of face-to-face public questioning (Day 1, Day 2) of a US government delegation earlier this month, the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) has published its concluding observations on US implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The UNHRC’s concluding observations include a strong endorsement of our call for Congress to enact legislation to “effectuate” the ICCPR by making the treaty enforceable by US courts, particularly where violations of the ICCPR do not constitute violations of any other US law.  As one of its key recommendations, the UNHRC says that:

The State party [i.e. the US] should … Taking into account its declaration that provisions of the Covenant are non-self-executing, ensure that effective remedies are available for violations of the Covenant, including those that do not, at the same time, constitute violations of U.S. domestic law, and undertake a review of such areas with a view to proposing to the Congress implementing legislation to fill any legislative gaps.

At the end of a press conference announcing the UNHRC’s concluding observations concerning the US, UNHRC Chairperson Nigel Rodley had this to say about committee’s review of US implementation  of the ICCPR the need for judicial enforcement and accountability for human rights violations:

Of course they [the US government's representatives] stressed the improvements they’ve made, so that people wouldn’t be doing the same things in the future. But absolutely not — there was no suggestion that any of those responsible for any of the past criminal violations of our Covenant [i.e. the ICCPR] would be brought to justice or that its victims would have access to their day in court.

The UNHRC’s concluding observations recommend that, “The responsibility of those who provided legal pretexts for manifestly illegal behavior should also be established.”

We won’t hold our breath for Congress to act, but we hope that this recommendation from the only independent body officially empowered to review the state of human rights treaty compliance by the US will prompt members of Congress to consider sponsoring legislation to create a cause of action for violations of the ICCPR and give US courts jurisdiction to hear such complaints.

The UNHRC also criticized US mass surveillance, but mentioned only communication surveillance and metadata and not the closely related issue of NSA and DHS mass surveillance of travel metadata.

UN Human Rights Committee review of US implementation of the ICCPR: Day 2

Friday, March 14th, 2014

US government delegation listens to questions from the UN Human Rights Committee. (Click image for larger version.) At the head table, left to right: Scott Shuchart (Senior Adviser, Office of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties, DHS), Megan Mack (Officer for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties, DHS), Bruce Swartz (Deputy Assistant Attorney General, DOJ), Roy Austin, Jr. (Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, DOJ), Mary McLeod (head of the US delegation and Principal Deputy Legal Adviser, Department of State). US Army Brigadier General Richard Gross (Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Defense) in profile at left in front of Ms. Mack.

Questioning of a US government delegation by the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) concerning US implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) continued today in Geneva.

Many of the same issues as were raised in yesterday’s first round of questions from members of the Human Rights Committee continued to be pursued in today’s follow-up questioning, along with other concerns including NSA surveillance and collection of communications metadata.

But as the day went on, there was an increasing focus on the “meta-issues” of applicability, enforceability, and remedies and redress for violations of the rights guaranteed by the ICCPR:

  • Does the US accept that everyone subject to US jurisdiction is entitled to human rights, as the Human Rights Committee and almost every other party to the ICCPR (except Israel) interprets the treaty to mean?  Or does the treaty only apply to US actions within its borders, allowing the US to violate human rights abroad with impunity?
  • In light of the US interpretation of the ICCPR as not being “self-executing”, and the failure of Congress to enact effectuating legislation to enable the treaty to be invoked in US courts, what “effective” means of judicial redress (as required by the ICCPR itself) are available to those whose human rights are violated, especially if those violations of the ICCPR don’t also constitute violations of domestic US law?

This latter point, raised today by at least four members of the UNHRC, was one that we had taken the lead in asking the UNHRC to address, through both an initial and a supplemental submission to the UNHRC in advance of this week’s session.

The head of the US government delegation, Mary McLeod of the State Department, responded to these questions today by telling the UNHRC that the US “sees no need” to allow the ICCPR to be invoked in US courts.

Her implicit message, and that of the other members of the US delegation in their responses to questions about specific issues, was that internal administrative measures provide an adequate substitute for judicial oversight or enforcement of human rights obligations.

But many of those claims about administrative “remedies” rang hollow:

  • DHS Officer for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties Megan Mack, who has been officially designated as responsible for implementation of the ICCPR by the DHS, said that her office “enforces” DHS administrative standards for use of deadly force by US Customs and Border Protection officers.  But she didn’t mention that her office is purely advisory, and has no authority to order any sanctions against CBP officers or any other DHS employees or contractors.
  • Ms. Mack told the UNHRC that her office “receives complaints” of violations of the ICCPR by DHS components, which is true. But she didn’t tell the UNHRC that  some of those  complaints, including some of ours, have been pending with her office for years without any response.  Nor did she mention that her office has claimed that violations of the ICCPR were “authorized” by US law, suggesting a profoundly mistaken belief that the US can derogate from its treaty obligations by enacting domestic statutes.
  • Roy Austin, Jr., Deputy Assistant Attorney General and head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, told the UNHRC how important it is to ensure that people who believe their human rights have been violated have a place to complain, and receive a response to their complaint.  But he didn’t disclose to the UNHRC that — as we learned in response to one of our FOIA requests — his Department has no record of ever having designated a point of contact for such complaints, or of ever having responded to any of them.
  • Deputy Assistant Attorney General Bruce Swartz talked about Attorney General Holder’s policy that his “Department will not defend an invocation of the [state secrets] privilege to conceal … administrative error”, but didn’t mention that A.G. Holder personally signed a sworn declaration to the court in the first “no-fly” trial, explicitly quoting that policy while invoking the state secrets privilege to try to prevent the plaintiff, who the government admitted posed no danger, from learning or obtaining redress for her having been placed on the “no-fly” list as a result of what the government admits was a mistake by an FBI agent who checked the boxes on a form he was supposed to un-check and un-chekked the boxes he was supposed to check.

Throughout the day, there was much talk of “guidelines” and “policies”, but little talk of laws or of whether practices conform to aspirational administrative “guidance”.

The UNHRC is expected to issue its report on US implementation of the ICCPR , in the form of “concluding observations” from its review, on March 27th.

Public questioning of US government on human rights

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Today and tomorrow in Geneva (early Thursday and  Friday morning in the USA), a delegation from the US government will be questioned publicly by members of the UN Human Rights Committee about US implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Here’s the schedule of the webcast public questioning:

  • Thursday, March 13, 15:00-18:30 Geneva time (7 am-10:30 am PDT, 10 am-1:30 pm EDT)
  • Friday, March 14, 10:00-13:00 Geneva time (2 am-5 am PDT, 5 am-8 am EDT)
  • tentative additional session Friday, March 14, 14:00-17:00 Geneva time (6 am-9 am PDT, 9 am-noon EDT)

This is neither the first nor the last step, but a critical step, in the review conducted by the Human Rights Committee every five years (as with each other country that is a party to the treaty) of US implementation of this international human rights treaty.

We’ll have more details after the sessions, but here are some quick links for those tuning in to the webcast:

How CBP abuses US citizens at (and near) borders

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

NPR’s “On The Media” has been reporting on a variety of abuses of US citizens by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “one of the least transparent federal agencies.” This week’s show, “Secrecy At The Border,” is a particularly moving hour-long compilation of personal stories from the CBP’s victims and their families.

You should listen to these interviews if you think you have nothing to fear from the CBP because:

  1. “I’m a US citizen.” Everyone interviewed on the show is a US citizen.
  2. “I’m not doing anything wrong.” None of those interviewed was charged with any violation of the law.
  3. “I don’t travel abroad, and I’m not trying to cross the US border.” Those interviewed include people detained while traveling within the US, up to 100 miles away form any border or coastline, and families of US citizens killed by CBP on the US side of the border.

The litany of CBP abuses includes warrantless hours-long detention and interrogation (if anything like this has happened to you, here’s how to request CBP’s files about your international travel and border crossings), intrusive searches of electronic devices and data, forcible body-cavity searches amounting to rape, and use of deadly force. A members of Congress who tried to find out when CBP claims the authority to kill US citizens on US soil describes being told that if there are any CBP guidelines for use of deadly force against citizens, they are a secret that the agency won’t divulge even to Congress.

DHS use of license-plate readers and vehicle location data

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson has cancelled a request for proposals for a contract for the DHS to get access to  vehicle location logs compiled by a commercial data aggregator from automated (optical character recognition) license-plate readers. The solicitation for bids was cancelled less than 24 hours after the first reports on the plan by mainstream news media, which prompted immediate public outrage.  The DHS now claims that the RFP was issued without the awareness of agency “leadership”.

We’re pleased to see the DHS forced by public pressure to suspend, at least for now, even this small part of its plans to expand the suspicionless surveillance and logging of of our movements throughout the country.

At the same time, it’s critical for the public to understand that while the DHS has (at least for the time being) withdrawn its proposal to pay a contractor use commercial vehicle location logs for DHS purposes, the DHS itself continues to compile and maintain its own secret database of vehicle location logs compiled from its own license-plate scanners.

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Blacklists and controls on the movement of goods and money

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

We’ve focused mostly on the “no-fly” list and other government blacklists and “watchlists” restricting the movement of people. But the latest administrative injustice involving an innocent British philosopher reminds us that government blacklists also restrict the movement of information, goods, and money — sometimes with serious negative effects on innocent people’s lives.

How the US Treasury imposes sanctions on me and every other “Stephen Law” on the planet - my letter to OFAC

My name is “Stephen Law“. The name “Stephen Law” appear on OFAC’s “specially designated nationals” list….

I have discovered that, as a result of this listing, US Customs block shipments of goods to me here in the UK. Also when people try to wire me money from abroad (not just from the US, but from anywhere), for e.g. occasional travel expenses for academic conference attendance, the payment is interrupted and various checks are made before the funds are released. This became so bad during one period (a series of payments every single one of which triggered a block) that I had to switch to a different bank account. At no point was I told why this was happening (i.e. that you, OFAC, are responsible). The banks concerned believe they must keep this information from me (I was told this by my bank branch). Hence it took me many months to figure out what the source of the problem was: OFAC/US Treasury.

It appears any “Stephen Law” anywhere in the world will suffer this same treatment, as indeed will anyone who merely happens to have the same name or alias as one of your “specially designated nationals”. This has proved frustrating, time-consuming and also costly to me personally. E.g. I have  paid US$77 postage for goods it turns out I can never receive because they are returned by US customs to the US vendor because my name is listed. As a result of the OFAC listing, I cannot now order goods from - or receive gifts from friends and relatives in - the United States….

OFAC-caused delays to payments to me can run into weeks. On one occasion I ran up overdraft charges as a result of not receiving funds blocked by OFAC….

How could this happen?

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Lessons from the first “no-fly” trial

Friday, February 14th, 2014

Information about what happened in Ibrahim v. DHS - the first “no-fly” case to make it to trial — has trickled out gradually, making it hard to get a clear picture of what has happened.

The court was cleared at least ten times during the week-long trial for testimony, introduction of evidence, and legal arguments that the government claimed had to be kept secret.  Many of the documents, exhibits, declarations, legal briefs, and even the judge’s opinion remain sealed, in whole or in part.  Key information has to be pieced together by reading between the redactions, or from passing mentions in open court, the meaning of which only becomes clear in light of other fragmentary revelations.

Most mainstream media didn’t cover the trial, covered it only from the written record, or attended only small portions of the proceedings.  We attended and reported on as much of the trial as was open to the public, but at times, we were the only reporter or member of the public in the courtroom.

The government still has until March 14th to decide whether to appeal, and the remaining sealed portions of the judge’s opinion aren’t scheduled to be released until April 15th. Key portions of Judge Alsup’s findings including what happened to Dr. Ibrahim’s US-citizen daughter are still secret. But in the meantime, what are our key takeaways from this trial?

(1) Congress needs to close the loopholes in the Privacy Act, which was enacted in 1974 to prevent exactly this sort of injustice, and would have done so but for its exemptions, exceptions, and lack of enforcement.

The purpose of the Privacy Act was to prohibit the government from using secret files as the basis for decisions about individuals, without allowing the subjects of those files to inspect and correct them. But agencies are allowed to exempt entire systems of records from these requirements. The DHS and the FBI (keeper of the Terrorist Screening Database which includes the “no-fly” list) have exempted their watchlists and blacklists and the allegedly derogatory information on which watchlisting and blacklisting decisions are based. In addition, although privacy is a human right protected by international treaty, the Privacy Act only protects U.S. citizens and residents. Other foreigners have no rights under this law, even when the U.S. government is using secret files to make decisions about their exercise of their rights.

(2) The watchlisting form and process incorporates presumptions in favor of surveillance and restrictions on travel, rather than presumptions of innocence and of travel as a right.

As was made clear in the latest redacted version of Judge Alsup’s findings, Dr. Ibrahim was placed on the “no-fly” list because FBI Agent Kelley left the box on the “nomination” form for “no-fly list ” blank:

This negative check-off form might look like poor user-interface design, but it actually exposes the real mindset of those who believe that travel is a privilege for which the traveler bears the burden of justification: “Better to restrict the rights of innocent people than to leave anyone off the watchlist.”  Once the threshhold decision to place a name on a “watchlist” is made, the default is a categorical ban on all air travel and the widest possible dissemination of the blacklist information to other agencies and other countries’ governments (TUSCAN to Canada and TACTICS to Australia).

(3) There are no meaningful internal or administrative safeguards on no-fly and watchlist decisions. Administrative agencies cannot police their own secret internal actions. Transparency and independent judicial review are the only way to safeguard rights.

The DHS and FBI have claimed that internal administrative reviews of watchlist “nominations” are adequate safeguards against wrongful agency actions, and make judicial review unnecessary.  In this case, Agent Kelley’s mistake was obvious on inspection, and would have been detected as soon as anyone checked whether the action ordered by the form was supported by the rest of the file.  Nobody did so until after Dr. Ibrahim had been arrested and further mistreated when she tried to check in for her flight.  If anyone “reviewed” or approved Agent Kelley’s nomination of Dr. Ibrahim to the no-fly list, they rubber-stamped the form without ever looking at the rest of the file, much less making an independent assessment of the factual basis for the decisions. This was the essence of Judge Alsup’s due process findings.

(4) The problem is not limited to the “no-fly list”, and there is no clear line between a “watchlist” and a blacklist. You can’t build a system of surveillance and individualized dossiers without it inevitably having consequences for people’s lives. The travel dataveillance system needs to be dismantled, and the whole database needs to be purged.

In the portion of her closing arguments conducted in open court, Dr. Ibrahim’s attorney, Ms. Elizabeth Pipkin, stated that Dr. Ibrahim and her daughter, Ms. Raihan Mustafa Kamal, had “the same status on the no-fly list”.

Presumably that common status was that neither woman was on the no-fly list. The  government claimed that its “mistake” (in placing Dr. Ibrahim on the no-fly list) was corrected the same day as her arrest in 2005, and that it had not prevented Ms. Mustafa Kamal from flying to San Francisco to attend and testify at her mother’s trial.

Neither Dr. Ibrahim nor Ms. Mustafa Kamal are on the “no-fly” list. But when FBI Agent Kelley’s mistake in putting Dr. Ibrahim on the no-fly list was corrected, she was moved to, or left on, one or more watchlists — as Agent Kelley had intended.  At some point Ms. Mustafa Kamal was also placed on one or more watchlists. Agent Kelly’s reasons for his intended decision to place Dr. Ibrahim (and perhaps Ms. Mustafa Kamal — we don’t know if she was watchlisted at the same time or separately, by whom, or why) on one or more watchlists remain secret, and were never disclosed to Dr. Ibrahim or her attorneys or reviewed by the judge. Because the government admitted that the no-fly listing was unwarranted and a mistake, the court never reached the question of what to do if the government claims that a listing was justified.

The “no-fly” list and the government’s other “watchlists” aren’t actually separate lists. Both are contained in the consolidated Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB). The only difference between a “watchlist” entry and “no-fly” entry is a flag associated with an entry on the consolidated list.

According to a post-trial government filing, “Kelley designated Dr. Ibrahim as ‘handling code 3.’… The majority of individuals in the TSDB are assigned the lowest handling codes – codes 3 and 4.”  That same “status” — not flagged as a “no-fly” listing, and with one of the lowest “handling codes” — was sufficient to cause the DHS to send a message to the airline on which Ms. Mustafa Kamal had reservations. That message induced the airline (as it was intended to do) to refuse to fulfill its duty as a common carrier or allow Ms. Mustafa Kamal to exercise her right, as a U.S. citizen, to travel to the US.

A watchlist sounds like a list of people who are subject to passive monitoring.  In practice, “watching” or surveillance isn’t aimless. It’s for the purpose of making decisions affecting individuals. In the case of Ms. Mustafa Kamal, some other “watchlist” status had the same negative consequence, denial of boarding by an airline, as “no-fly” status. Dr. Ibrahim’s watchlist status (and perhaps the fact that she had once been on the no-fly list) led to her being unable to obtain a US visa, even lafter she was removed from the no-fly list.

In the future, “watchlist” needs to be understood as a euphemism for a de facto blacklisto that allows a level of deniability: “You’re not on the no-fly list. We just advised the airline not to let you fly.”

There’s no hard line between passive surveillance and active interference with individual’s activities. This lesson is well known to the FBI: Sending the FBI to question your employer can get you fired, even if the FBI is in theory merely collecting information and doesn’t order or explicitly recommend that you be fired.

Surveillance is itself stigmatizing, and stigma has consequences. During the Ibrahim trial, the government argued, verbally and in written pleadings, that it had not stigmatized Dr. Ibrahim because it “never” disclosed Dr. Ibrahim’s status on its lists to “anyone”. But in fact, the government disclosed Dr. Ibrahim’s status on the list, and later that of her daughter, to the airlines. These are precisely the entities to which it would be most damaging to have this stigma (suspicion of  posing a threat to aviation) disclosed.

(5) The US government is willing to lie to the courts to try to hide its mistakes and misconduct.

Before, during, and after the trial, officials including Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and lawyers for the government defendants claimed that to disclose anyone’s status on any watchlist, or the basis (if any) for assigning that status, would “cause significant harm to national security.”

This continued even after Judge Alsup and Dr. Ibrahim’s attorneys knew how Dr. Ibrahim had been placed on the no-fly list and that the government did not consider her to pose any threat to aviation.

Dr. Ibrahim’s lawyers sought to depose Attorney General Holder and DNI Clapper regarding their sworn declarations supporting the assertion of “state secrets” privilege by Holder and the other defendants. On motion of Holder and the defendants, Judge Alsup quashed the subpoenas for those depositions.

On its face, the government’s assertion amounts to a claim that to disclose to the public that Dr. Ibrahim was put on the no-fly list because an FBI agent failed to check a box on a form would harm national security.

Does the government really expect us to believe that would-be terrorists are deterred by their belief that the FBI is infallible, so that disclosing that the FBI once made a mistake would unleash the forces of terror?

We don’t think so. The government lied to cover up its mistakes and to protect itself against deserved criticism, not to protect national security.

Remember that the next time the government claims that something must be kept secret “because terrorism”.