Group Takes Aim at Secrecy Regs

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By: Joe Strupp

A recently formed coalition of journalism groups created to counter government secrecy has asked for changes to new federal regulations that they claim could restrict information about the nation’s airports, seaports, and transit systems.

“Public accountability does not have to be sacrificed for security,” said the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government in a release Friday, just hours after filing a comment on the regulations. “In fact, accountability enhances security. That is precisely what is at stake here.”

The regulations (49 CFR 14 and 49 CFR 1520) were implemented June 17. They authorize the Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, and U.S. Coast Guard to collect security information and records on any form of transportation, then prevent any public disclosure by declaring it “Sensitive Security Information,” the group claimed.

Department of Transportation officials declined to comment on the complaint.

The agencies could bar local and state officials from discussing the information or releasing records by requiring them to sign non-disclosure agreements that carry stiff financial and criminal penalties, the group contends.

The coalition warned of possible “collateral damage” to citizen oversight — the use of the security label by some local officials to hide information on operations and management practices they don’t want the public to know about.

The regulations are too sweeping and “certain to create abuses of good public policy and to deny people their rights as citizens,” the coalition wrote in a response to the new policy, filed on behalf of the nine organizations: the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Associated Press Managing Editors, Committee of Concerned Journalists, National Association of Science Writers, Newspaper Association of America, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Radio-Television News Directors Association, Society of Professional Journalists, and Society of Environmental Journalists.

The coalition added that “the regulations were so loosely written that almost anyone in the agencies — even interns — could declare information sensitive and remove it from the public record.” They also objected to “a lack of criteria in making decisions on what information should be withheld from the public.

“This authority to withhold public information is a very special trust that must be granted with the greatest care and discretion,” the coalition’s written statement said. “Accountability and trust must not become victims in the war on terror.”

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