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    A Times Editorial

    Overkill in the name of security

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 14, 2002

    Some elements of the Bush administration's proposed department for homeland defense are being hacked at by members of Congress protecting their turf, but there's one part of the administration's draft bill they should all set their axes upon: the section that would keep damaging industry records and reports from public eyes.

    Section 204 of the Homeland Security Act, H.R. 5005, provides an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act for "information provided voluntarily (to the federal government) by non-federal entities or individuals that relates to infrastructure vulnerabilities or other vulnerabilities to terrorism."

    The definition of what constitutes a vulnerability is so broad it could apply to almost any information, sensitive or not, given by a non-federal entity to the department.

    That broad exemption is setting off alarm bells in the public-interest community. A coalition of environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the provision would prevent the public from accessing information regarding "environmental hazards, health hazards, product defects and other dangers." Reports on accidental chemical spills, air pollution test results or repair and maintenance records would be out of reach. Those filings allow these groups to keep watch over businesses' environmental and safety records.

    FOIA already protects against the release of trade secrets and sensitive commercial or financial information received from business and industry. And, of course, anything that might endanger national security is exempt. A blanket exemption would be overkill, risking demonstrably more harm down the road in ways we can only guess at now. Domestic security isn't protected by adopting policies that could generate more health and safety problems than they solve.

    The news gets worse. Since proposing the initial language of Section 204, the administration has floated a more industry-friendly bill that would not only grant companies an FOIA exemption but also throw up barriers to legal redress for corporate wrongdoing.

    Administration officials claim the purpose of the "Protection of Voluntarily Submitted Critical Infrastructure Information Act" is to encourage industries to come forward with information about their weak spots -- anything that could make them vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

    In fact, the bill would give companies the incentive to share all sorts of irrelevant information with the government, because whatever a company reports would be put out of reach to the public and, according to the terms of the bill, couldn't be used against it in a civil lawsuit without its consent.

    Fifteen public-interest groups, including Common Cause and the Society of Professional Journalists, have sent a letter to the Senate expressing serious concerns about the bill's potential for abuse.

    "Companies with something to hide will race to "voluntarily' disclose information about potential violations to the government," wrote the groups. "By stamping it "critical infrastructure information,' the information could not be made public or given to the courts without the permission of the corporation."

    Good corporate citizens do not need these kinds of immunities. Moreover, the last thing Congress should be considering given current events is new government barriers to corporate accountability. Public trust in corporate judgment already is sufficiently eroded; there is no reason to give big industries a new way to keep the public in the dark and out of court.

    The public's right to know should not be another casualty in the war on terror.

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