WASHINGTON The Homeland Security Department is requiring employees to sign a nondisclosure agreement so restrictive that it might be unconstitutional, according to two unions for thousands of border workers.
The nondisclosure pact, introduced in May, prohibits department employees from giving the public "sensitive but unclassified" information. It also says that the government "may conduct inspections at any time or place" to ensure that the pact is obeyed.
The two unions, the National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement Monday that the pact gave the government "unprecedented leeway to search employee homes and personal belongings in violation of the Fourth Amendment."
The unions, which together represent about 35,000 Homeland Security Department employees, include a large number of customs and border workers.
Lawyers for the unions recently wrote to the general counsel of the department, Joe Whitley, asking that the nondisclosure pact no longer be distributed and that a directive that outlines the policy for identifying and safeguarding sensitive but unclassified information be withdrawn.
The letter also says that the directive gives officials a device "to suppress and cover up evidence of their own misconduct or malfeasance by stamping documents 'for official use only."'
A spokesman for the department, Brian Roehrkasse, said in a telephone interview, "The notion that this would be used to cover up evidence of wrongdoing is baseless." He said that the policies were meant to protect sensitive information and that they did not necessarily exempt releases of data under the Freedom of Information Act.
Lawyers from the unions said they were unsure what prompted the policies. A report in The Washington Post brought them to light.