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NASA FOIA denial prompts congressional questions

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  1. Freedom of Information
Oct. 26, 2007  ·   Congressional leaders of a House committee on science want answers surrounding the denial of a…

Oct. 26, 2007  ·   Congressional leaders of a House committee on science want answers surrounding the denial of a reporter’s Freedom of Information Act request concerning an extensive survey on airline safety conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

According to an Oct. 21 letter sent by the Chairman of the Committee on Science and Technology, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) to NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin, “The Committee intends to hold a hearing on this matter at the earliest possible date.” A schedule on the committee’s website indicates a hearing entitled “Aviation Safety: Can NASA Do More to Protect the Public?” will take place on Oct. 31.

The congressional inquiries stemmed from a FOIA request made by AP reporter Rita Beamish and a follow up story she wrote about a survey of airline pilots conducted at NASA’s request, examining air safety. According to the AP story, an analysis of the survey’s results concluded that safety issues, including near mid-air collisions and runway incursions, occur far more often than government monitoring has previously indicated. Around 24,000 interviews with commercial and general aviation pilots were conducted over the nearly four years the survey ran at a cost $8.5 million dollars, the AP story reported.

Beamish’s request for the survey information was denied in a letter by the agency in which an administrator wrote, “Release of the requested data, which are sensitive and safety-related, could materially affect the public confidence in, and the commercial welfare of, the air carriers and general-aviation companies whose pilots participated in the survey,” the AP story indicated.

Gordon’s letter expressed concern that “at NASA commercial interests appear to trump the public’s right to aviation safety data.” The letter also instructs Griffin and NASA not to purge any of its records concerning the survey, and to make sure that contractors involved in the project retain their records as well.

A statement posted on NASA’s website from Griffin said that he is reviewing the FOIA request “to determine what, if any, of this information may legally be made public.”

Griffin’s statement also said that he generally believes that NASA research should be broadly available for review and scrutiny. “NASA should focus on how we can provide information to the public — not on how we can withhold it,” the statement said.

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