U.S. Tried to Conceal Anti-CAFTA Reports

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Labor Department kept secret for more than a year government studies that supported Democratic opponents of a new Central American trade deal devised by President George W. Bush's administration, internal documents show.

The studies, paid for by the department, concluded that several countries the administration wants to be granted free-trade status have poor working conditions and fail to protect workers' rights.

The agency dismissed the conclusions as inaccurate and biased, the documents said.

"In practice, labor laws on the books in Central America are not sufficient to deter employers from violations, as actual sanctions for violations of the law are weak or nonexistent," the contractor, the International Labor Rights Fund, wrote in one of the reports.

The studies' conclusions contrast with the administration's arguments that Central American countries have made enough progress on such issues to warrant a free-trade deal with the United States.

Hoping to lure enough Democratic votes to win passage, U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman earlier this month promised to arrange an international conference to ensure "the best agreement ever negotiated by the United States on labor rights."

But behind the scenes, the administration began as early as spring 2004 to block the reports' public release.

The Labor Department instructed its contractor to remove the reports from its web site, ordered it to retrieve paper copies before they became public, banned the release of new information from the reports and even told the contractor it could not discuss the studies with outsiders.

The department has now worked out a deal with the contractor that will allow the labor rights group to release the country by country final reports, provided there is no mention of the agency or federal funding.

One lawmaker said he was shocked that a federal agency charged with protecting the rights of U.S. workers would go to such lengths to block the public from seeing its own contractor's concerns before Congress votes on the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

"You would think if any agency in our government would care about this, it would be the Labor Department," said Senator Byron Dorgan, a South Dakota Democrat. Dorgan said he would use the contractor's findings in an attempt to defeat CAFTA.

Dirk Fillpot, spokesman for the Labor Department's Bureau of International Labor Affairs, said the agency and an independent evaluator concluded the contractor "failed to meet the academic rigor expected to fulfill its contract" and the relationship was terminated June 10.

The competitively bid contract totaled $937,000, but Fillpot said $250,000 would be refunded to the Treasury Department.

Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican who supports the trade agreement, said he was familiar with drafts of the reports and believed they would be "widely dismissed as a fraud."