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Tax dollars to fund study on restricting public data

USA Today/Richard Willing | July 7 2006

The federal government will pay a Texas law school $1 million to do research aimed at rolling back the amount of sensitive data available to the press and public through freedom-of-information requests.

Beginning this month, St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio will analyze recent state laws that place previously available information, such as site plans of power plants, beyond the reach of public inquiries.

Jeffrey Addicott, a professor at the law school, said he will use that research to produce a national "model statute" that state legislatures and Congress could adopt to ensure that potentially dangerous information "stays out of the hands of the bad guys."

"There's the public's right to know, but how much?" said Addicott, a former legal adviser in the Army's Special Forces.

"There's a strong feeling that the law needs to balance that with the need to protect the well-being of the nation. ... There's too much stuff that's easy to get that shouldn't be," he said.

The federal Freedom of Information Act, which became law 40 years ago this week, has long been a source of tension between the government and the public and news media.

Critics say the research plan overstates the need for secrecy and is likely to give state and federal governments too much discretion to withhold material. "Restricting information (for) security and efficiency and comfort level, that's the good story," says Paul McMasters, a specialist in public information law at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va. "The bad story is that it can also be a great instrument of control. ... To automatically believe that the less known the better is really not rational."

Congress added the grant to this year's Defense Department budget. It is being administered through the Air Force Research Laboratory, Addicott said. The laboratory in Rome, N.Y., specializes in information technology, according to its website.

The Freedom of Information Act was signed July 4, 1966. All 50 states and the federal government have "sunshine laws" that allow reporters and citizens access to many government meetings and to government records through freedom-of-information requests.

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT:Signed documents by President Johnson (.pdf files)

In the past four years, Congress, the District of Columbia and 41 of the 50 states have moved to close some meetings and restrict records for fear of making information available to terrorists, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va.

Under a 2002 law, for instance, information submitted to the federal government by private industry that concerns "critical infrastructure programs" is exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests or use in lawsuits.

Since 2004, Virginia has withheld terrorism response plans, as well as engineering and architectural drawings of government buildings that are deemed to be possible terrorist targets. Since 2004, Ohio has required formal requests and fees to access formerly open birth and death records.

Addicott says the various state plans should "take a more uniform approach" so that neighboring states and the federal government are "on the same page."

In 2003, he said, a simulated cyberattack on San Antonio's water and government information systems showed that computer security data that was protected under federal law could have been accessed by terrorists under Texas legislation.

Lucy Dalglish, director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says the research program is in keeping with a recent federal trend to use "homeland security" as an excuse to restrict unrelated material.

"Decisions (on requests for public information) are being handled in progressively less friendly ways," she said.

Addicott said he knows of no cases in this country in which public records or a public meeting were used for a terrorist act. In 2002, a hacker in Australia breached the data control system of a water treatment plant and caused 260,000 gallons of sewage to be discharged.

"We're leaning forward in the saddle (and) thinking about this before it happens," he said.

 

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