Citing the threat of terrorism, federal officials are keeping more information about the security of the nation's seaports secret, but new regulations -- and proposed legislation -- could also shut off records about safety and environmental issues. Critics say the new rules could block disclosure of data about the driving records of hazardous-waste haulers, the criminal records of port stevedores and the recent safety history of railroads and vessel operators.
Transportation Security Agency officials, charged with keeping airports and seaports secure, said they will move cautiously to interpret and enforce regulations, similar to the rules covering aviation, that went into effect in June.
Those rules allow the Coast Guard to designate data about a port's operation as "sensitive security information" that cannot be made public. How shippers and haulers handle cargo is a prime concern, with security experts warning that ports are especially vulnerable to smuggling by terrorists.
But that new designation could include any records "that would be detrimental to the security of transportation if that information was disclosed," and another provision says that could be extended to personnel records.
'The definitions are too broad and vague, allowing the government to stamp `secret' on something because it's a public embarrassment," said Rick Blum, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of advocacy groups. "This actually undermines public safety."
A Transportation Security spokesperson, Lauren Stover, said the government recognizes "the public's right to know" how transportation facilities are operated. The TSA, she said, is "just starting to evaluate" how far the regulations will go.
In South Florida, Lt. Tony Russell of the Coast Guard said the goal is to prevent disclosure of port security plans and the details of vessel and cargo operations.
"We don't want to identify weaknesses that could be exploited by anybody who wants to do us harm," Russell said.
The new regulations would not remove all employment records as a group from public scrutiny, but some information in employee records could be declared off-limits, said Jolie Shifflet, a Coast Guard spokesperson.
Florida has strong open-government laws, which have played a role in investigations of corruption at the Port of Miami-Dade, Port Everglades and other facilities. That could change under a small provision of a massive transportation spending bill that Congress may pass this fall.
That provision, requested by the Bush administration, would give the TSA wide-ranging authority to extend secrecy to any transportation "facilities, infrastructure or employees." The new law would override state freedom-of-information laws such as Florida's.
"That bill would allow the TSA to declare just about anything to be sensitive and secret," said Kevin Goldberg, a lawyer representing the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
The provision, in the Senate version of the bill, has received little attention on Capitol Hill, where members and the administration are battling over two versions of the bill in a conference committee. At issue: whether to spend more than $256 billion on highway projects.
A coalition of nine media organizations is fighting the secrecy provision. Environmental groups are urging the government to narrowly define "sensitive information" and thoroughly review how it is being applied.
In aviation, the tension between secrecy and information has already generated a vigorous debate. Last fall a group of pilots and flight attendants said the TSA was preventing a public discussion of airport security by blocking disclosure of records.
Last year, the TSA and U.S. attorney's office in Miami dropped charges against a baggage screener accused of theft rather than disclose at trial information about security and training procedures.
So far, the government has not overstepped its authority in shutting off information, said one homeland security expert, James Carafano.
"I have not seen real abuses of the system, and I think the balance between secrecy and disclosure has been pretty good," said Carafano, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Carafano, like other analysts, said one key is the vitality of congressional oversight.
"Not everybody needs to see this data about how security is working, but somebody needs to look at it -- and that should be Congress," he added.
The Congressional Research Service, in its analysis of new regulations in June, saw a need to strike a balance:
"The regulations are an attempt to prevent transportation security information from reaching the wrong hands and being used to plan another 9/11 attack."