ACLU Says Freedom of Information Act Exemptions For Private Industry Would Endanger Public Safety

July 24, 2002 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Citing examples of information that could be exempted from Freedom of Information Act disclosure under legislation to establish the cabinet-level homeland security agency, the American Civil Liberties Union today said that these “”critical infrastructure”” provisions would endanger public safety.

“”The bill, as it now stands, would prevent citizens from knowing about or challenging private industry incompetence in their own backyards,”” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “”We already have laws in place to protect secret business information about our critical infrastructure from disclosure – this legislation goes too far.””

Edgar said the homeland security legislation currently pending in the House of Representatives would make information critical to protecting public safety, such as that showcased in the following examples, privileged and immune from public scrutiny. Edgar urged the Senate to reject the House plans and protect public safety.

  • Information about dangerous uranium, recycled from nuclear weapons and stored at private facilities across the country could not be disclosed under FOIA if the legislation were to pass. Government studies have shown that stockpiles of the radioactive material exist around the country and pose serious health risks to thousands of workers. (“”Study Flags Radioactive Threat”” and “”Tainted Uranium, Danger Widely Distributed,”” USA Today, June 25, 2001)
  • After a fatal Amtrak derailment in southern Iowa, investigations showed that a stretch of privately owned railroad track, which suffered from over 1,500 defects, was partly to blame. Under the FOIA exemptions in the House bill, this information – essential to preventing such a disaster in the future – would be under strict lock and key. (“”Several Defects Reported Along Zephyr’s Track,”” Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, Iowa), June 11, 2001)
  • FOIA was used to expose a series of clerical errors and other mistakes at private and public blood banks that had led to the exposure of a number of patients to tainted blood. The risk of being exposed was never relayed to the public until the act was used. (“”Bad Blood,”” U.S. News and World Report, June 27, 1994)

“”While this bill might have been conceived in the admirable hope of fortifying our national security, it’s difficult to see how allowing private industry to keep secret actions that expose Americans to tainted blood or radioactive material or caustic chemicals is a step in the right direction,”” Edgar said.

The ACLU’s letter urging the Senate to reject these new private industry secrecy provisions can be found at:

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