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President proposes broad FOI exemption for Homeland Security

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Jun 19, 2002    

President proposes broad FOI exemption for Homeland Security

  • A White House bill to set up a Department of Homeland Security makes secret information given to the department and excludes departmental advisory committees from openness requirements.

President Bush’s proposed legislation to create a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security tacitly declares that “voluntarily provided” information about vulnerabilities to terrorism by non-federal entities or individuals is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

The White House sent the measure to Congress on June 6.

David Sobel, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. called the proposal “a kind of ‘born classified’ concept” that would forever shield information regardless of who held or used it.

Legislators in both houses have studied or introduced several different measures over the past two years to encourage businesses to voluntarily share with the government information about the weaknesses of any infrastructure essential to the economy. Those earlier measures generally promise that the government would not disclose the shared information.

But Sobel said it is hard to imagine a broader exemption to the FOI Act than the proposal in the White House bill. He said it offers “the most simplistic approach” and disregards complexities identified in the earlier bills.

Media groups, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, government watchdog organizations and environmental groups have regularly objected to the earlier bills. They have argued that the public cannot address problems that threaten its safety and security without some idea of the existence and magnitude of those problems. They have also pointed to existing federal FOI Act exemptions that they say already protect against disclosure of information that could actually cause harm.

The Bush proposal would also give Homeland Security authority to establish advisory committees exempt from openness and other requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Because of the need to use advisory committees “on highly confidential and sensitive” homeland security matters, those of this department should be exempt from the act, the proposal says.

In addition to limiting public oversight of the agency, the president’s proposal also would limit the ability of a departmental inspector general to carry out audits or investigations of the department.


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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