Despite Windows Closing on Public Information, Steady Work Continues

Article excerpt

Despite new secrecy and security hurdles, the 4,000-plus members BRANT HOUSTON of this organization are showing they have no intention of retreating from aggressive investigative journalism.

In newsrooms here and abroad, our members are cranking out enterprising stories despite the closing of government Web pages, the secrecy of the military and federal prosecutors, and the ranting by politicians - and even some fellow journalists - that to hold public officials accountable is to be unpatriotic.

Since Sept. 11, IRE members have scrutinized airport security and airline safety, the poor performance of intelligence and relief agencies, the internal disputes of the military and politicians, the narrowing of civil liberties and the threats of bio-terrorism and how the government has handled those threats.

For example, if you go to the IRE Web site, www.ire.org, and look at stories based on FAA safety databases, you will see that numerous newsrooms across the country did public service stories on airport security. Among those probing airport security problems were newsrooms in Anchorage, Dallas, Seattle, Tulsa, Milwaukee, Atlanta, San Diego, Nashville, Asbury Park, Columbus, Ohio, and Charlotte. In addition, Knight-Ridder ran a nationwide story about how airport security became, and stayed, so flawed and the role lobbyists have played in preventing changes.

The FAA has since closed access to the enforcement data, citing national security reasons. However, the database includes far more than airport security violations; it includes information on hazardous material violations, maintenance problems and many other issues. But rather than make a reasonable, thought-out decision, the FAA simply chose to shut down the whole database and deny the press and the public the right and opportunity to examine the agency's failure to correct violations.

However, the FAA action did not stop the Transportation Department's own inspector general from publicizing continued flaws at airports. Interestingly, the FAA hasn't responded that the inspector general is threatening national security.

Of course, the FAA is not the only agency closing down information intended to ensure public safety. Federal authorities have removed the National Dam Inventory from the Web, saying that it contains dangerous information.

On one count, the authorities are right. There is information throughout the database showing aging, infrequently inspected dams are upstream from communities that have no emergency action plans for evacuation if the dams collapse. News organizations across the country - NBC Dateline did a classic story - have used this database for several years to alert the public to the potential dangers. And some of these dams could collapse on a sunny day without a terrorist attack.

Information from the Office of Pipeline Safety (natural gas pipelines) also has been closed. …