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Holding the Government Accountable

Homeland Security "Gag" Orders for Guards

Congressional Quarterly has the latest (hat tip: Justin Rood) on the now-year-long saga of gag oaths—known as "non-disclosure agreements"—at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS):

Security guards at the Department of Homeland Security were forced last month to sign agreements not to disclose information the agency deems sensitive — an attempt, according to several current guards, to silence them after recent high-profile revelations of security breaches at DHS.

The guards, employed by Wackenhut Services Inc., were told to sign pledges, called “non-disclosure agreements,” on March 10, the day after former guard Derrick Daniels appeared on NBC Nightly News alleging security lapses at the agency’s Nebraska Ave. complex headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The timing raises questions about whether DHS and Wackenhut misused the agreements and ignored whistleblower protections in an effort to prevent the guards from disclosing additional information about security lapses at DHS headquarters.

According to one guard, Wackenhut supervisors threatened to fire employees who did not sign the non-disclosure agreements. Wackenhut recently lost out on bidding for a new security contract at DHS to Virginia-based Paragon Systems LLC. Nevertheless, Wackenhut guards will continue to provide security at DHS headquarters for the next few months, according to a department spokesman.

POGO and other organizations fought the DHS non-disclosure agreements and won an important victory, keeping the 180,000 government employees at DHS from having to sign them. However, contractors still are not immune from having to sign the secrecy oaths and DHS's policies are problematic for other reasons.

One of POGO's objections to these agreements is the overly broad definition of "sensitive but unclassified" information the agreements are supposed to protect. And as the CQ article indicates, it seems that Wackenhut is abusing the non-disclosure agreement and taking advantage of the vagueness of "sensitive but unclassified" to shut down security guards attempts to alert the media and the public to security breaches at DHS.