SAN ANTONIO — St. Mary’s University School of Law will conduct a government-funded study of possible alterations to the Freedom of Information Act aimed at fighting terrorism, a school official said.
Jeffrey Addicott, head of the school’s Center for Terrorism Law, said the yearlong project would examine ways of rewriting the open-government law to prevent terrorists from getting sensitive information about water, sewer, electricity and transportation systems.
The Defense Department is funding the study with a $1 million grant that will be administered by the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y. (Editor's note: It was later learned that it had not been decided at that point that the laboratory would administer the grant. See the update linked at the bottom of the story.)
“The mission is to balance increase in security with civil liberties, which are precious,” Addicott said in yesterday’s editions of the San Antonio Express-News. “In a time of war, balance goes toward security.”
Addicott said the project will study federal and state laws passed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks aimed at keeping information from terrorists by blocking access to some records and meetings. The project will consult with scholars on where the laws go too far, and where they fall short.
The project’s end product would be a “model” statute for Congress and state governments to consider, he said.
Advocates of open government said the project is troubling.
“It seems like we’re just losing all our freedoms in the name of homeland security, and I just wonder where the real threat is,” said Randy Sanders, president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and retired editor of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.
“We’re not going to keep terrorists from finding out about power plants and water supplies by tightening the Freedom of Information Act,” he said.
Paul McMasters, a public information expert at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., said reconciling discrepancies in law “is not a bad idea.”
“But for this to be done at the direction of a federal agency where secrecy is paramount and where confusion is frequent gives one pause,” he said.
Bill Piatt, dean of St. Mary’s Law School, says the center’s work will be independent, even though it’s paid for by the government.
“What we are doing is not political,” Piatt said. “We are not enacting the statutes; we are not lobbying politicians. We are doing academic research.”
Addicott, a former legal adviser in the Army Special Forces, says he doesn’t know of any terrorists who have used freedom-of-information laws to gain insight about infrastructure, but he believes it’s inevitable that they will.
McMasters said security is often the result of public attention to vulnerabilities.
“We are not restricting anything from those seeking to harm us, but we are keeping in the dark the citizenry who might generate pressure to reduce vulnerabilities,” he said.