By DAHNA BLACK
Doug Milholland and more than 400 other residents of Port Townsend, Washington, are taking a stand against secrecy. The residents have submitted a petition to three Jefferson County commissioners asking them to write to Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell (both D-WA) and challenge Section 1044 of the National Defense Authorization Act (S. 1254). Section 1044 would give the Department of Defense (DoD) broad authority to withhold large swaths of information about military facilities—information critical to the public’s health and safety.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) stipulates that federal agency records belong to the public and must be released upon request, unless a record can be lawfully withheld under an exemption. Section 1044 of the Senate’s version of the defense budget bill is a proposed exemption to FOIA that would give the DoD broad discretion and authority to withhold unclassified information loosely defined as “critical infrastructure information” and “that, if exploited, could result in the disruption, degradation, or destruction of Department of Defense operations, property, or facilities.”
The intent, as characterized in the DoD’s original request, is to protect military facilities from terrorist attacks. But this exemption goes much further, allowing the military to keep just about anything relating to the infrastructure of a facility hidden from the public.
The people of Port Townsend aren’t looking for access to government secrets, and don’t want to put our military at risk for attacks by terrorists. The petition organizers are worried that the language in S. 1254 violates their right to know whether or not munitions at Naval Magazine Indian Island pose a threat to their community. Since the information is not classified, the community believes it should be made available so they can better understand their risks.
After all, this is not the first time that a branch of the military has kept important information from the public. As POGO’s Angela Canterbury and Abby Evans recently recounted,
Between 1957 and 1987, as many as one million Marines and their family members at Camp Lejeune drank, bathed in, and cooked with water contaminated by various volatile organic compounds--some at levels as high as 280 times what is considered safe under law. For years, the Marine Corps kept this secret, blocking many attempts to uncover the truth--even after the first news of water contamination broke in 1987.
Here in Washington, D.C., POGO and other organizations are pushing for a fix for the DoD secrecy provision. Today, POGO sent a letter the Senate urging that Section 1044 be removed or amended as proposed by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Similar to the narrower House version of the FOIA exemption that was championed by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), the proposed Leahy amendment would require DoD to balance other public interests with security concerns before making a decision to withhold information.
The Senate is expected to vote on the defense budget bill when they return next month from their August recess. POGO Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury had this to say about the Leahy amendment:
Senate offices have an opportunity now to learn more about this issue and what is at stake. Naturally, we hope they will lend their support to the Leahy FOIA amendment, which strikes the right balance between national security and other public interests.
The people of Port Townsend understand that their county commissioners do not have jurisdiction over what happens in Washington, D.C., but are doing everything they can to stand up for what they believe is right. As Milholland said in an interview with the Peninsula Daily News, “by taking a stand here, you can make a difference.” In the case of Naval Magazine Indian Island, that difference could save lives.
Dahna Black is POGO’s Public Policy Fellow.