from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2009, Issue No. 22
March 5, 2009

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Government safety investigators canceled a public briefing about an August 28, 2008 explosion that killed two persons at a chemical plant in Institute, West Virginia after operators of the plant said that public discussion of the accident could jeopardize "sensitive security information."

Bayer CropScience, which runs the plant, told the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that relevant information about the plant is protected from public disclosure under the terms of the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, as interpreted by U.S. Coast Guard regulations.

The Board, which is an independent federal agency that investigates industrial accidents, canceled the March 19 public meeting while it seeks to evaluate the Bayer secrecy claims. See "Board Cancels Hearing Under Bayer Pressure" by Ken Ward, Jr., The Charleston Gazette, February 25, 2009.

On their face, the Bayer secrecy claims do not seem well-founded.

The Maritime Transportation Security Act invoked by Bayer states (at section 70103) that certain facility security information "is not required to be disclosed to the public." That apparently means its disclosure cannot be compelled under the Freedom of Information Act, but it doesn't say that disclosure of such information is prohibited.

Coast Guard regulations (33 C.F.R. 101) implementing the Act state that the plant information could be "sensitive security information," which is protected from public disclosure. But compliance with those regulations is binding only on "covered persons," a category that does not include the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

So these provisions would appear to have little relevance to this case, and to impose no non-disclosure obligations on the Chemical Safety Board.

"The whole purpose of these homeland security rules is supposed to be to increase public safety, not to reduce it," said one federal official who expressed skepticism regarding Bayer's reading of the secrecy requirements.

"We deserve the right to know in a timely manner what is happening in our community that could have such major effects on our health and safety. We also deserve the right to tell you our concerns and so inform the remainder of this investigation," wrote Maya Nye of People Concerned About MIC [methyl isocyanate] and a coalition of other citizens groups in a letter to the Board this week.

A decision on how the Chemical Safety Board will proceed in this case is pending. Meanwhile, the Bayer CropScience plant was cited last week for multiple violations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. See "Bayer Plant Cited for 13 Serious Violations Including Safety Issues" by Tony Rutherford, Huntington News, February 27, 2009.


A November 2008 Defense Department study of trends in national and international security was intended "to spark discussions ... about the nature of the future security environment." But the study, called the Joint Operating Environment 2008 (JOE 2008), has also triggered several unintended international reactions.

Last December, South Korean officials complained that JOE 2008 included North Korea in a list of nuclear weapons states. The U.S. Joint Forces Command felt obliged to issue a news release disavowing that statement in the report.

"The statement regarding North Korea does not reflect official U.S. government policy regarding the status of North Korea. The U.S. government has long said that we will never accept North Korea as a nuclear power," the Joint Forces Command declared.

Then it turned out that Mexico was unhappy with the JOE's discussion of that country's potential vulnerability to criminal gangs and drug cartels, including the statement that "an unstable Mexico could represent a homeland security problem of immense proportions to the United States."

"The Mexican ambassador has asked to see me and we hope to link up very soon," said Gen. James Mattis of Joint Forces Command on February 12. Mexico's concerns about JOE 2008 were reported in "Mattis Plans Meeting with Mexican Ambassador over Controversy" by Fawzia Sheikh in Inside the Pentagon, February 19, 2009.

Perhaps as a result of such unwanted attention, JOE 2008 has been quietly removed from some Defense Department web sites like this one, which says the document is "currently unavailable":

But it remains online at Joint Forces Command and is also posted here:

Hopefully, the Defense Department will not conclude that it must neuter its public statements or that it should move its security policy studies behind closed doors in order to avoid criticism or hurt feelings. Instead, DoD and its counterparts abroad might come to appreciate that questionable, challenging and even erroneous statements can be openly discussed without doing any real harm to anyone.


"Evidently $30 million and 10 years wasn't enough to finish the job of declassifying records on the involvement of U.S. intelligence agencies with Nazi and Japanese war criminals," writes Jeff Stein in CQ Spy Talk. "Congress has just budgeted another $650,000 to finish the job -- really, they're serious this time -- of poring through some 8 million postwar pages." See "The Really Longest War: U.S. Still Spending on Nazi War Docs," March 3.

"The Navy has classified regular reports about the material condition of its fleet, an about-face from when the reports were accessible as public documents under the Freedom of Information Act," reports Philip Ewing in Navy Times. See "Navy Classifies Ship Inspection Reports," February 27.

"The Association of Health Care Journalists has urged President Barack Obama to end inherited policies that require public affairs officers to approve journalists' interviews with federal staff."

"The military is investigating how a secret briefing about national security got posted on the Web, including information about 93 tunnels found along the nation's borders and a warning that Canada could become a terrorist gateway," wrote Pam Zubeck in the Colorado Springs Gazette. See "Military probes how secret briefing wound up on Web," February 28.


Books sent to Secrecy News recently include these:

"Snake Fish: The Chi Mak Spy Ring" by Edward M. Roche.

"The Great Cold War: A Journey Through the Hall of Mirrors" by Gordon S. Barrass, Stanford University Press, March 2009.

"The Contractor," a novel by Colin MacKinnon, St. Martin's Press, February 2009.


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

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