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Investigative Reports 12/22/03

The Power of the Fine Print

When Congress passed the Homeland Security Act last year, it gave the Bush administration a new tool for secrecy. A little-known provision of the act allows federal, state, and local officials to withhold vast amounts of information in the name of protecting the homeland.

The provision directs the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies to share "sensitive homeland security information" with state and local officials and others, like doctors and emergency personnel, who might have to respond to terrorist acts. Those given access must sign nondisclosure agreements, which would also cover information they send back to federal officials. Breach of the agreements could result in criminal penalties and fines.

Critics say officials at all levels could use the provision to withhold vital health, safety, and environmental information improperly or to cover up embarrassing details about their own offices. Scott Armstrong, director of a Washington public interest group that promotes openness in government, worries that officials will lock up information "in a huge, infinitely expandable safe."

Armstrong and Jeffrey Smith, general counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Clinton, coauthored a recent paper dealing with the information-sharing provision. Smith says that new regulations must be carefully drawn to prevent abuses. "It is a classic case of how do you protect information that needs to be protected," he says, "and make public what should be public." The Department of Homeland Security, which has 180,000 employees, failed to respond to questions from U.S. News, despite repeated requests. -Christopher H. Schmitt and Edward T. Pound