Society Fights Restrictions

Article excerpt

New critical infrastructure guidelines pose a threat to information.

"It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness."

- ancient Chinese proverb

There have been times in recent years when it seems as if lighting a single candle is all that SPJ and other advocates of open government have been able to do when faced with bad policies put forth by government. And when the policies come from the federal level, the darkness seems so vast and so smothering that one can lose hope.

Nonetheless, SPJ continues to speak up at the federal level when we see bad ideas, bad legislation and bad policy. We recently did so again.

This time, the issue was the federal government's treatment of critical infrastructure information (CII), a subject we first became involved with in the spring of 2002. At that time, Congress wanted to make it easier for private sector businesses to share problems they had with "critical infrastructure" - physical or electronic facilities - that might be vulnerable to terrorism.

Our concerns at the time were that existing CII legislation would throw a blanket over a wide variety of information submitted to the federal government by the private sector in the name of "homeland security." Put simply, the information would remain secret and the government could not punish the submitter for any violations of laws or regulations revealed by the information. We believed this was unacceptable and, with existing exemptions for business contained in the Freedom of Information Act, unnecessary.

SPJ closely monitored congressional discussions of that subject through the spring and summer of last year. Then, as Congress rushed to a pre-election adjournment last fall, the carefully-crafted CII legislation we had backed was junked, while a much more damaging version was incorporated into the mammoth Homeland Security Act. As the deadline for passage loomed, the House and Senate passed the H.S.A. and, in the process, drove a gaping hole through the Freedom of Information Act.

This spring, the new Department of Homeland Security published its proposed rules for handling critical infrastructure information, essentially codifying a bad law into operational regulations. The rules are important because they will guide federal agencies and employees as they handle CII information.

DHS asked for comments on the rules, and SPJ has responded through its Washington law firm of Baker & Hosteller. Put simply, SPJ has asked the DHS to put a narrow interpretation on what can be submitted as CII, to whom it may be submitted and how it will be handled. …