By DANA LIEBELSON
A few members of POGO were up bright and early this morning, waiting for the announcement of the Academy Award nominations. This may seem like unorthodox behavior for a bunch of wonks--but the moving documentary, Semper Fi: Always Faithful, which explores the catastrophic contamination at Camp Lejeune, was short-listed for a nomination--and we hoped this honor would bring attention to the pressing issue.
Sadly, the documentary didn’t make the Oscars' final cut—but POGO certainly hasn’t given up on helping the Marines and civilians who were sickened at Camp Lejeune receive justice. Today, along with our allies, we sent letters to the Pentagon and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), asking them to consider the public interest, and come clean about the scandal.
As POGO reported last week, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) recently released a redacted report on the water contamination at Camp Lejeune in response to a legally dubious request by the Navy. Today, POGO and allies raised concerns about the legal justifications for the redactions and urged HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to ensure the public release of the unredacted ATSDR report to the full extent allowable under the law.
The letter raised questions about whose interest the Marine Corps (which is a component of the Navy) is taking into account:
Given the many documented instances of inappropriate secrecy related to the Camp Lejeune water contamination, it is reasonable to question the interest being sought by the Marine Corps in its letter urging ATSDR to withhold information. Conflicts of interest should be strongly considered when a federal entity whose site is under investigation by another agency urges for secrecy of any kind.
The Marine Corps assertion in the letter that “prudence requires, however, that information sharing be within the rubric of responsible force protection” rings very hollow to the Camp Lejeune service members and civilians and their families who after having lost loved ones, suffered cancer and grave illnesses, are still waiting for the truth and some justice.
In a second letter sent to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, POGO and allies asked the Pentagon to explain the Navy's request to keep some information secret, and also to begin properly implementing the Pentagon’s new “public interest balancing test” when determining whether to withhold certain critical information from the public:
To say the least, it is troubling that the current Marine Corps procedures outlined in the letter are not at all based on the most recent and most relevant law governing DoD treatment of CISI. We urge you to take measures immediately to properly implement the use of the CISI exemption to FOIA.
The letters are signed by organizations with missions that range from advocating for good government to environmental protection and to justice for Camp Lejeune victims. Also copied on the letters are new White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, several congressional committees of interest, the authors of the public interest balancing test for the FOIA exemption—Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY)— as well as Members of Congress who have championed legislation to provide for some healthcare for the Camp Lejeune victims: Senators Richard Burr (R-NC), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Representatives John Dingell (D-MI) and Brad Miller (D-NC).
Let’s hope these letters will help bring truth and justice to Marines, civilians, and the family members affected by the contamination at Camp Lejeune—like Jerry Ensminger, who lost his young daughter to leukemia, and whose story is featured in Semper Fi.
“I find it rather disheartening and frightening that federal agencies grant each other secrecy when the issues concern the health, safety and welfare of hundreds of thousands of American citizens who were in fact poisoned by one of the federal departments protected by the agreement,” Ensminger told POGO.
Dana Liebelson is POGO’s Beth Daley Impact Fellow.