The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) reached an unsettling conclusion last week when it allowed the names of 23 federal employees to be withheld after they were investigated following the death of two U.S. Forest Service firefighters in July 2003.
Following the blaze in the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho that killed firefighters Shane Heath and Jeff Allen, the Forest Service was investigated and criticized by both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the agency’s inspector general. Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against the firefighting team’s leader, Cmdr. Alan Hackett, who was convicted and agreed to have his name released after being sentenced to probation.
When the watchdog group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics attempted to obtain more information about the deaths and the Forest Service’s investigation that followed through a Freedom of Information Act request, the agency blacked out the names of 23 of its employees who had been investigated.
Ultimately, a three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit ruled that releasing the names would have caused unjustified embarrassment to the employees and otherwise constituted a "clearly unwarranted invasion" of the employees’ privacy.
It is puzzling that the Ninth Circuit would think that the public’s interest in further scrutinizing both the Forest Service’s internal operations as well as the external investigations that ensued after the tragedy would be outweighed by the privacy of federal agency employees who allegedly had some part, however small, in the deaths of two firefighters.
The FSEEE rightly argued that releasing the employees’ names would help reveal where the Forest Service assigned the unnamed employees, who were not ultimately charged criminally, after the investigation, and to also verify whether the Forest Service’s official report was accurate.
But in redacting the employees’ names, the Ninth Circuit allowed the agency to hide behind FOIA exemption 6 and its overused privacy exemptions. While it is certainly fair to consider the reputations of the agency employees involved in a case like this, the priority within such a review should be on agency performance, accountability and preventing future tragedies. The Ninth Circuit’s decision obstructs rather than aids this important process.