Oral arguments slated over Sept. 11 documents

Rory Eastburg | Secret Courts | Feature | March 24, 2009

A Manhattan federal court will hear oral arguments Wednesday on whether more than a million pages of documents related to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks should remain sealed.

Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the United States District Court in New York City will hear arguments from The New York Times and the Reporters Committee, as well as victims’ families and attorneys for the aviation industry defendants.

The documents come from lawsuits the families of certain Sept. 11 victims brought against airlines and related defendants. According to a statement from the plaintiffs’ attorneys, more than a million documents remain sealed by an overbroad protective order that allowed the defendants to unilaterally designate vast numbers of documents as containing confidential trade secrets.

Neither the victims’ families nor the media groups seek to unseal documents the government has classified as containing “Sensitive Security Information.”

Attorneys for the victims’ families are seeking to set aside the blanket designations of  confidentiality, arguing that documents withheld as trade secrets include such important information as “whether the airport screeners’ magnetometers were working on 9/11; whether the screeners were qualified for their jobs in terms of language skills, citizenship, past criminal record and other factors; video footage of the hijackers going through airport security; and training manuals for screeners.”

The Times, on behalf of itself and the Reporters Committee, intervened for the limited purpose of requesting access to the sealed documents. In a motion filed on Jan. 20, the media groups argued that the aviation defendants failed to demonstrate the required “good cause” to keep the documents secret, and that “a review of the public filings in this litigation strongly suggests that the materials would be of immense public interest.”

In their opposition to the media request, the aviation defendants claimed that the requested documents might “paint an incomplete and misleading picture of the events of September 11, 2001.” The defendants added that the “litigation would come to a grinding halt” if the court set aside the current confidentiality designations, because they “would be forced to conduct a wholesale review of their document productions to show good cause for each” designation.