SECRECY NEWS
from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2003, Issue No. 40
May 12, 2003

SHUTTLE ACCIDENT BOARD ERODES OPEN MEETING LAW

The five non-governmental members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that is reviewing the February 1 space shuttle accident have all been hired as NASA employees, thereby enabling the Board to evade the open meeting requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).

"If the civilians had not been hired by NASA, a federal law would have required the investigating board to meet publicly, justify any closed-door sessions and keep transcripts and minutes that would ultimately become public records," according to an astonishing story in the Orlando Sentinel, which first reported that the private board members were now NASA employees.

See "Board paid to ensure secrecy," by Kevin Spear, Jim Leusner and Gwyneth K. Shaw, Orlando Sentinel, May 11, here:

Members of the Board took umbrage at the implication that their independence had been called into question by the disclosure that they are now NASA employees.

It's "hogwash," Admiral Hal Gehman, the Board chair, told the Washington Post (referring to my comments in particular). "I don't feel compromised," said John M. Logsdon of the George Washington University Space Policy Institute. "I do not compromise my independence in any way," said MIT professor Sheila Widnall.

"This is a pretty independent-minded and stubborn group of people on this Board," said former astronaut Sally Ride in the Orlando Sentinel, "so the investigation won't be compromised."

The issue, however, is not the personal integrity of the Board members nor the fact that they are getting paid for performing a difficult and thankless task. At issue, rather, is the principle of openness in government advisory panels and especially in accident investigations.

To the extent that it has embraced secrecy, the Board has excluded all of the journalists, aerospace professionals and other interested members of the public who might have been able to provide helpful feedback during the course of the investigative process.

But what is worse is that the Board members have lent their considerable prestige to the notion that incidents like the Columbia disaster cannot be effectively investigated in public.

Admiral Gehman last week went so far as to promise that transcripts of confidential Board interviews "are never going to see the light of day."

This is a stunning and disappointing retreat from the practice of the 1986 presidential commission on the Challenger accident, where officials were questioned in public and under oath -- to great effect.

"Secret testimony is bullshit in an accident investigation," Robert Hotz, a member of the Challenger commission, told the Orlando Sentinel.

For all of their declared integrity and independent-mindedness, the Columbia Board members have now made it more difficult to uphold the Federal Advisory Committee Act. They have made it more likely that the next NASA accident review will also be held behind closed doors. They have reinforced the disastrous idea that honest investigations and other official deliberations cannot be sustained under public scrutiny.

See "Shuttle Panel Neutrality a Concern" by Eric Pianin, Washington Post, May 12:

The web site of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board is here:


SSCI REPORT ON INTELLIGENCE AUTHORIZATION

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) had a little to say about a lot of things in its new report on the intelligence authorization act for fiscal year 2004, published late last week.

The Committee recalled its futile effort to criminalize all "leaks" of classified information (a measure fiercely opposed by civil liberties and media organizations and vetoed by President Clinton in 2000) and asked the Administration to revisit the issue yet again:

"Understanding that such a broad [anti-leak statute] measure still appears to lack political support... the Committee wishes to encourage the Executive Branch to adopt a new and more aggressive approach to leak issues. The Committee recommends that the U.S. Government consider the workability of aggressive criminal and civil enforcement, even civil compensatory remedies (e.g., liquidated damages)."

The SSCI report authorizes funds for research "leading to the development of alternatives to the polygraph as a security evaluation tool for the U.S. Government."

The Committee requests reports on intelligence community data mining capabilities, security clearance procedures, and intelligence lessons learned from the war in Iraq.

The report asks the executive branch to review the executive order on classification policy and to consider potential changes to the order "to facilitate information sharing and data access across the Intelligence Community."

The Committee directs the National Security Agency to develop a pilot program that would permit analysts in other intelligence agencies "to obtain access to and analyze data collected and held by NSA, while retaining appropriate handling safeguards."

And the Committee incorporates the proposed Freedom of Information Act exemption for "operational files" of the National Security Agency, a proposal that also appears in the pending Defense Authorization Act.

These and many other notable provisions can be found in the SSCI Report on the Intelligence Authorization Act for FY 2004, Senate Report 108-44, dated May 8, here:

The Intelligence Authorization Act (S. 1025) itself, as marked up by the Committee, may be found here:

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Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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