Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio
he federal government will pay a Texas law
school $1 million to do research aimed at rolling back the
amount of sensitive data available to the press and public
through freedom-of-information requests.
Beginning this month,
St. Mary's University School
of Law in San Antonio will analyze recent state laws that
place previously available information, such as site plans of power
plants, beyond the reach of public inquiries.
Jeffrey Addicott, a professor at the law school, said he
will use that research to produce a national "model statute"
that state legislatures and Congress could adopt to ensure that
potentially dangerous information "stays out of the hands of the
"There's the public's right
to know, but how much?" said Addicott, a former legal adviser in the
Army's Special Forces.
"There's a strong feeling
that the law needs to balance that with the need to protect the
well-being of the nation. ... There's too much stuff that's easy to
get that shouldn't be," he said.
The federal Freedom of
Information Act, which became law 40 years ago this week, has long
been a source of tension between the government and the public and
McMasters, Specialist in public information law
Critics say the research plan
overstates the need for secrecy and is likely to give state and
federal governments too much discretion to withhold material.
"Restricting information (for) security and efficiency and comfort
level, that's the good story," says Paul McMasters, a specialist in
public information law at the First Amendment Center in Arlington,
Va. "The bad story is that it can also be a great instrument of
control. ... To automatically believe that the less known the better
is really not rational."
Congress added the grant to
this year's Defense Department budget. It is being administered
through the Air Force Research Laboratory, Addicott said. The
laboratory in Rome, N.Y., specializes in information technology,
according to its website.
The Freedom of Information
Act was signed July 4, 1966. All 50 states and the federal
government have "sunshine laws" that allow reporters and citizens
access to many government meetings and to government records through
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION
Signed documents by President Johnson (.pdf files)
In the past four years,
Congress, the District of Columbia and 41 of the 50 states have
moved to close some meetings and restrict records for fear of making
information available to terrorists, according to the Reporters
Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va.
Under a 2002 law, for
instance, information submitted to the federal government by private
industry that concerns "critical infrastructure programs" is exempt
from Freedom of Information Act requests or use in lawsuits.
Since 2004, Virginia has
withheld terrorism response plans, as well as engineering and
architectural drawings of government buildings that are deemed to be
possible terrorist targets. Since 2004, Ohio has required formal
requests and fees to access formerly open birth and death records.
Addicott says the various
state plans should "take a more uniform approach" so that
neighboring states and the federal government are "on the same
In 2003, he said, a simulated
cyberattack on San Antonio's water and government information
systems showed that computer security data that was protected under
federal law could have been accessed by terrorists under Texas
Lucy Dalglish, director of
the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says the research
program is in keeping with a recent federal trend to use "homeland
security" as an excuse to restrict unrelated material.
"Decisions (on requests for
public information) are being handled in progressively less friendly
ways," she said.
Addicott said he knows of no
cases in this country in which public records or a public meeting
were used for a terrorist act. In 2002, a hacker in Australia
breached the data control system of a water treatment plant and
caused 260,000 gallons of sewage to be discharged.
"We're leaning forward in the
saddle (and) thinking about this before it happens," he said.