Holding the Government Accountable

Letter: Is the Navy Trying to Keep the Camp Lejeune Investigation Secret?

POGO received a curious letter today revealing that the Department of Navy seems to be putting pressure on another government agency to stymie its release of information related to the water contamination scandal at Camp Lejeune.

Camp Lejeune will likely go down in history as the stage of one of the worst toxic contaminations in the country—and one of the most shameful cover-ups by the Marine Corps. Between 1957 and 1987, as many as one million Marines at Camp Lejeune and their family members used and ingested water contaminated by extremely toxic organic compounds.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) was mandated by Congress to conduct environmental and health investigations into this horrific incident. A report is anticipated in the near future. In a letter given to POGO by an anonymous source, and dated January 5, the Department of Navy told the agency that the “security environment” has “significantly changed” since the Camp Lejeune investigation began.

“I request that we work together to review our public domain materials and take appropriate steps to protect critical infrastructure information,” wrote Marine Corps General J.A. Kessler in the letter.

Kessler goes on to outline exactly what kind of information ATSDR should “review carefully.” This includes location information for active and inactive potable water wells, lines, treatment plants and storage tanks.

The Navy is asking ATSDR to take the military’s security into account, but we're concerned the Navy's pressure is really an attempt to block release of information that could have great public interest. After all, ATSDR has been doing oversight—in particular, health assessments and health study activities—that could implicate the U.S. Marine Corps and the Department of Navy in wrongdoing. This raises questions as to what interests the Navy is seeking to protect.

Notably, the Navy makes no mention of the “public interest balancing test” now required by the language introduced in December by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) to a Department of Defense FOIA exemption passed late last month in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012.

According to the new exemption for certain “Critical Infrastructure Security Information,” the Secretary of Defense must consider whether the public interest in disclosure of information outweighs the government’s need to withhold the information, when evaluating FOIA requests.

“If the Navy is successful, it could set a very dangerous precedent for other agencies to withhold federal scientific and environmental information from the public, by letting agencies invoke unsubstantiated national security concerns,” said Angela Canterbury, POGO’s director of public policy.

Canterbury urges ATSDR to release all information surrounding the investigation allowed under the law, and asks Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to ensure that the Navy and every other department and agency under DoD are appropriately using the public interest balancing test.

“The military and civilian families of Camp Lejeune deserve to know nothing short of the whole truth” she said.