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Newspaper editors worry about access to public records

By The Associated Press


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AUSTIN, Texas — Newspaper editors are worried that attempts to close access to public records because of the war on terrorism may go too far, they said late last week.

An official with the federal Office of Homeland Security countered that authorities are trying to balance the public's right to access while protecting national security.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks triggered secret detentions, closing of records and a shutdown of information that should be available to the public, said Doug Clifton, editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio.

"What has occurred ... has been a fundamental erosion of some of the things we hold dear in this country," Clifton said Sept. 20 during a panel discussion at the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas conference.

"It is permeating the city halls of America and state governments. We see, in the name of national security, a closing down of access to information," Clifton said.

The USA Patriot Act, hurriedly adopted by Congress and signed by President Bush six weeks after the terror attacks, tipped laws in the government's favor in 350 subject areas involving 40 federal agencies.

The Bush administration has since imposed other legal changes without congressional consent, such as allowing federal agents to monitor attorney-client conversations in federal prisons, and encouraging bureaucrats to deny public access to many documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Homeland Security bill now before Congress would create additional exemptions to disclosure laws.

Lt. Col. Marianne Burtnett of the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps and a special assistant in the Office of Homeland Security, said officials are trying to balance the public's right to know and the government's responsibility to protect its citizens.

"Our country is really at a pivotal point in history," Burtnett said. "We're trying to adjust to circumstances as we go along.

"The administration's position is always going to be that the American people have a right to access information, they should have full and open flow of information."

The government wants to protect some information from falling into the wrong hands, she said, such as details on gas pipelines or documents related to nuclear power plants. Even releasing information about detainees could tip the balance of information toward the terrorists, she said.

"Part of the campaign is to not let al-Qaida know what we know," Burtnett said. The goal is to safeguard information that could be used in a terror attack, she said.

She also noted that the Patriot Act was passed by Congress.

"That is something that Congress, which represents the people, passed," she said.

Tony Pederson, senior vice president and executive editor of the Houston Chronicle, said the government must be allowed to fight terrorism, but that civil liberties activists worry it will kill some of the country's freedoms.

"The United States government clearly needs full capability to combat terrorism and protect the security of this country," Pederson said. "Yet there is a history of more than 200 years of rights that we hold absolutely sacred."


Newspaper editors join to battle threats to FOI
ASNE, APME meet to consider ways to deal with increasing tendency of governments to withhold information and to make previously available records secret.  06.12.02

Many new records laws balance free-speech, security concerns
Analysis First Amendment advocates, state lawmakers say middle ground has been found that protects sensitive information but doesn't unnecessarily freeze out public.  05.21.02

Ohio anti-terrorism law blocks access to security records
'This is yet another one of those examples of the danger in how far you overreact and what you have done to the principles of open government,' says press association director.  08.27.02

Open-government advocates leery of homeland security bill
Senate to vote on amendment that would strip measure of language exempting advisory committees from public-disclosure rules.  11.18.02

Public records tougher to view since Sept. 11
Culture of secrecy that traditionally has pervaded federal government was magnified after last year's terrorist attacks, panelists say.  05.09.02

2002 National FOI Day resources
Material from March 15 conference, 'Access & Security in a Time of Crisis.'  03.18.02