The Bush administration is doing the public's business out of the public eye. Here's how--and why
The Federal Aviation Administration has its own security concerns, and supporters say it has addressed them vigorously. In doing so, however, the agency has also made it harder for Americans to obtain the kind of safety information once considered routine. The FAA has eliminated online access to records on enforcement actions taken against airlines, pilots, mechanics, and others. That came shortly after the 9/11 attacks, when it was discovered that information was available on things like breaches of airport security, says Rebecca Trexler, an FAA spokeswoman. Balancing such concerns isn't easy. But rather than cut off access to just that information, the agency pulled back all enforcement records. The FAA has also backed away from providing access to safety information voluntarily submitted by airlines.
As worrisome as the specter of terrorism is for many Americans, many still grumble about being kept in the dark unnecessarily. Under rules the Transportation Security Administration adopted last year--with no public notice or comment--the traveling public no longer has access to key government information on the safety and security of all modes of transportation. The sweeping restrictions go beyond protecting details about security or screening systems to include information on enforcement actions or effectiveness of security measures. The new TSA rules also establish a new, looser standard for denying access to information: Material can be withheld from the public, the rules say, simply if it's "impractical" to release it. The agency did not respond to requests for comment.
This same pattern can be seen in one federal agency after another. As Joseph McCormick, the former Army Ranger trying to learn more about the pipeline planned for Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, learned, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission now restricts even the most basic information about such projects. The agency says its approach is "balanced," adding that security concerns amply justify the changes.
The Bush administration is pressing the courts to impose more secrecy, too. Jeffrey Sterling, 36, a former CIA operations officer, can testify to that. Sterling, who is black, is suing the CIA for discrimination. In September, with his attorneys in the midst of preparing important filings, a CIA security officer paid them a visit, demanding return of documents the agency had previously provided. A mistake had been made, the officer explained, and the records contained information that if disclosed would gravely damage national security. The officer warned that failure to comply could lead to prison or loss of a security clearance, according to the lawyers. Although vital to Sterling's case, the lawyers reluctantly gave up the records.
What was so important? In a federal courtroom in Alexandria, Va., a Justice Department attorney recently explained that the records included a pseudonym given to Sterling for an internal CIA proceeding on his discrimination complaint. In fact, the pseudonym, which Sterling never used in an operation, had already been disclosed through a clerical error. Mark Zaid, one of Sterling's attorneys, says the pseudonym is just a misdirection play by the CIA. The real reason the agency demanded the files back, he says, is that they included information supporting Sterling's discrimination complaint. Zaid says he has never encountered such heavy-handed treatment from the CIA. "When they have an administration that is willing to cater [to secrecy], they go for it," he says, "because they know they can get away with it." A CIA spokesman declined comment.