Aug. 28, 2003 — ASBPE was one of 75 organizations that sent a letter yesterday to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

The letter calls on the Department of Homeland Security to allow public input on procedures for “safeguarding” and sharing a vaguely defined set of information among firefighters, police officers, public health researchers, and federal, state, and local governments. The organizations that signed onto the letter represent journalists, scientists, librarians, environmental groups, privacy advocates, and others.

Under the auspices of fighting terrorism, the Department is poised to write – without guarantees for public input – procedures that could sweep otherwise publicly available information that has nothing to do with terrorism into a zone of secrecy while subjecting millions of Americans to confidentiality agreements.

The letter asks Secretary Ridge to release to the public a draft version of the new procedures – which would not themselves contain classified information – and address public comments in writing a final version. The letter expresses concerns that the procedures

  • may cut a broad swath of information out of the public domain,
  • would subject millions inside and outside of government to nondisclosure agreements and criminal penalties for disclosing information improperly, and
  • would cut out the ability of journalists, community groups, and others to inform the public of activities of federal, state and local governments.

The law that created the Department, the Homeland Security Act, included a
provision requiring the federal government to safeguard and share “homeland security information” with government officials, public health professionals, firefighters, and others in order to respond to a terrorist attack.

The wording potentially includes a broad set of information — perhaps including such things as maps of environmental contamination, for instance — that is not classified but may be perceived as helpful to a terrorist or in responding to or preventing a future attack.

Read the letter (64 K PDF).