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Government tightens hold on information

Posted on Tue, Jul. 23, 2002

Government tightens hold on information
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

The federal government is suppressing information about some high-ranking government officials and quietly requesting that they not be written about, citing national security.

Most recently, the Federal Aviation Administration asked the Star-Telegram to stop working on a profile of Ruth Leverenz, an FAA official, and not to photograph her.

Government watchdogs and First Amendment advocates say such moves raise concerns about where to draw the line between keeping decision-makers safe and providing the public with the information it needs to evaluate officials.

"Requesting journalistic profiles not be done? That one's a new one and, quite frankly, a very scary one," said Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum and former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

"The idea of halting a profile on a highly visible public figure because of a worry about how it might reveal sensitive information, carried to its extreme, could bring public accountability to a halt," McMasters said. "Not to mention the American public is interested in those who carry out policies."

The public must be able to evaluate the qualifications of government officials to judge whether they are capable of performing their jobs, Star-Telegram Executive Editor Jim Witt said.

The newspaper decided to proceed with the Leverenz profile because of her prominent role at an agency undergoing dramatic change, he said.

In another case, officials with the Environmental Protection Agency asked Washington, D.C., reporter Todd Carter not to post resumes of EPA political appointees on the Natural Resources News Service Web site.

EPA officials asked Carter to return the resumes, and they sent him new ones on which education levels, awards, affiliations and job experience had been blacked out.

Carter said the EPA's general counsel told him that "in the wake of Sept. 11, they didn't want information about government officials made public."

Carter did not comply with the request and put the resumes on the Web site. The EPA's general counsel did not respond to Star-Telegram requests for an interview.

Security concerns are increasingly being cited as grounds to deny access to information about officials. FAA officials said their leaders were told to "keep a low profile" for security-related reasons.

But such restrictions may also be a result of the shift of federal officials from one job to another in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Hundreds of workers from the U.S. Customs Service, Border Patrol and other agencies have moved to the new, higher-paying Transportation Security Administration.

Some officials may simply be unfamiliar with a news media accustomed to quick responses, say reporters who cover government officials. The federal security directors assigned by the Transportation Security Administration to oversee airport security are former Secret Service agents or other law enforcement officers with little experience in aviation.

Awkward denials are more common from new appointees. In January, reporters bristled when David Cohen, former CIA director of operations, was announced as the New York Police Department's new intelligence chief, then gave evasive answers about his age and CIA connections. The NYPD says Cohen was trying to be funny.

"He was getting several questions that were trivial. He was asked, 'What's your age?' And he said, 'Between 30 and 70' - something like that - smirked and moved on," said Michael O'Looney, an NYPD spokesman. "It was a joke."

Cohen is 60. Information about his background, including university work and professional record, is widely available through other sources.

Part 1520 of the Code of Federal Regulations was adopted Feb. 17 when the FAA's civil aviation security rules were tightened and transferred to the TSA's authority. It allows the Department of Transportation to restrict information that would:

"Constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy (including, but not limited to, information contained in any personnel, medical or similar file)."

  • "Reveal trade secrets or confidential information."
  • Be "detrimental to the safety of persons traveling in transportation."

    If part of a record is public and part of it is privileged and if the record-keeper determines it is impractical to separate the two, the record can be withheld.

    What to release?

    A wide range of information could endanger national security if released, media scholars and government officials say. Should troop movements be concealed? Absolutely, McMasters said.

    But how about the soldiers' identities? The names of federal detainees?

    One of the chief criticisms of top TSA officials is that they have little aviation experience. Without access to details about them, how would the public know that?

    The concern about restricting information runs across the political spectrum.

    One of the cautionary right-to-know articles after Sept. 11, "How the EPA Helps Terrorists," was written by Jonathan Adler, assistant professor of law at Case Western Reserve University. It appeared on National Review Online, the Internet version of the magazine founded by conservative author William F. Buckley.

    Adler's commentary criticizes the EPA for seeking to post on the Internet the risk-management plans of companies that use dangerous chemicals. He says doing so would provide a road map for terrorists to follow.

    But in the same breath, Adler says there is a problem with limiting what people know about who governs them.

    "In general, the public should have broad access to government information," Adler says. "It's certainly possible that in the initial reactions after Sept. 11 there has been a little bit of overreaction.

    "Some of the information hopefully will find its way back up. Getting information about where the vice president is going to be is a lot different than asking for Elaine Chao's resume."

    Yet a simple Internet search doesn't locate a resume for Chao, the U.S. labor secretary. The closest thing is a page listing biographies of Bush administration Cabinet members on the Web site for the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden.

    Brief biographies also appear on the White House Web site. There is a biographical Web site on an Elaine Chao, but it's for a musician in California.

    The most glaring example of the trend is the heavy editing of Web sites with sensitive information, said Jane Kirtley, Silha professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. Besides government agencies, some businesses and private agencies have cut their information as well.

    The problem, Kirtley said, is the blurring of the line between information deemed classified because of national-security concerns and "sensitive information," which has no clear standard and is open to interpretation.

    When that is combined with a post-Sept. 11 memo from Attorney General John Ashcroft, a climate of secrecy emerges. The memo, in essence, advised government officials that the attorney general's office would support denials of requests for information whenever possible.

    "The FAA is an example of that, but it's certainly not alone in that regard," Kirtley said.

    "At one point, the FAA had taken down information about various incidents - safety-related but not necessarily security-related. Yet Boston Logan Airport has kept its stuff on its Web site, supposedly because it's important to keep the public informed about the steps they're taking."

    The average citizen should know about the hazards of local chemical plants, Kirtley said, as a counterpoint to Adler's article.

    Political motives

    When political partisanship is involved, the rules can blur further.

    Obtaining information from federal agencies was a hit-or-miss proposition even before Sept. 11 for the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, D.C., a conservative public-interest law firm. It won the Cheryl Hopwood reverse-discrimination case against the University of Texas Law School.

    "An individual ... officer him- or herself is pretty cooperative, but when other people in the agency find out about the request, politics often gets involved. There can be a lot of stonewalling," said Curt Levey, the center's director of legal and public affairs.

    On the whole, analysts say that the idea of national security has probably been overused and that other factors were in play.

    "We're finding in general they're using every excuse to tighten up," said Joseph Trento, president of the National Security News Service in Washington, D.C.

    Mike Boyd, an aviation expert in Colorado, has been one of the harshest critics of federal transportation officials. He said that since Sept. 11, public curiosity, scrutiny and anger have been focused on the FAA and TSA.

    Both are in cover-up mode, he said, as the top leadership undergoes dramatic reshuffling. Because many security responsibilities have been transferred to the TSA, the FAA has been given a largely regulatory role. FAA Administrator Jane Garvey will leave in early August. And the top spot at the TSA changed hands Thursday from John Magaw to Adm. James Loy.

    "There's no other way of putting it," Boyd said. "It's about security - their job security."

    Bryon Okada, (817) 685-3853

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