Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Ex-Marine, and ex-Seattle news exec warn U.S. Senate against overly broad disclosure shields

by March 21st, 2012

In a recent testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee, a retired Marine and a national proponent of government transparency with long and deep ties to Seattle, ratcheted up concerns about a recent military attempt to censor from the public eye information on drinking water and public health risks. Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger (Ret.), who believes his daughter died of leukemia as a result of contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in 1985, was disappointed that the U.S. Marine Corps decided to remove from an official study, information regarding locations of water sources in the area. It has been the latest in a series of hurdles he has had to overcome in the case.

In September, the Environmental Protection Agency declared in a press release that trichloroethylene — or TCE — is a human carcinogen and has been known to cause cancer. TCE has been found in the contaminated water, which has affected up to 1 million people before it was closed twenty years ago, according to health officials.

The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has started a health survey to determine whether there has been an anomaly of increased cancer cases at Camp Lejeune. The results should be published in 2014.

Tricky balancing act between national security and transparency
Ensminger’s testimonial took place in a larger hearing called, “The Freedom of Information Act: Safeguarding Critical Infrastructure Information and the Public’s Right to Know.” His story became the prime example of what can happen if information is withheld from the public.

On Jan. 5, Navy Major General J.A. Kessler sent a letter to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, asking to remove information regarding Camp Lejeune’s water source locations from websites and their Chapter B report, a geohydrologic study on the contaminated water. Kessler explained in the letter that a security review concluded the release of such locations “potentially places those who live or work aboard the base under risk.”

“That … agency didn’t question it,” Ensminger said at the hearing. “They just — for lack of a better term — rolled over into a fetal position and said ‘Kick me again.'”

ATSDR wrote that redacting the locations bore no detriment to the study.

Redacting locations of potential contamination sites seen as troubling
However, the sole author of the Chapter B report, Robert E. Faye, wrote that redacting longitudinal and latitudinal locations of water sources “do indeed substantially compromise the technical and scientific integrity of Chapter B.” In the same letter, he called claims to the contrary bordering on the “inane and silly.”

Concerns from Congress
Jan. 27, Sen. Richard Burr and five other Congress members sent a letter to ATSDR questioning why they decided to censor the information. They were dubious about USMC’s timing — just days before ATSDR’s Chapter B report — and expressed worry that the censorship would set a precedent for further “national security” restrictions on public information.

Ensminger could not understand why revealing in the public record the location of water sources would present a risk. For him, their location was no secret. At the hearing, he recalled a joke he had made to a staff person on his way to a meeting with USMC officials. “I jokingly asked them before they went into the meeting to please ask…if they perfected their Klingon-type cloaking device to cloak these 100-and-some-foot (water) towers.”

The hearing went beyond the scope of just Camp Lejeune, with both congressmen and panel members concerned about the broad definition of what information can be withheld from the public for the sake of national security.

Former Seattle P.I. news exec, now transparency advocate, also weighs in
The panel also heard from Kenneth Bunting, executive director of National Freedom of Information Coalition, a national network of government transparency expert advocates, housed at the Missouri School of Journalism and supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. During a 30-year journalism career, Bunting served as the executive editor and managing editor over 17 years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and is an ex-resident of Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood.

“The worst thing would be a sweeping definition that is too broad, too loosely defined, where the words can be made to be whatever they want them to be, that gives too much unchecked power to the government,” he said. “Given any leeway, agencies will find a way to make it say what they want it to say.”

Bunting explained that with respect to national security exemptions to public disclosure, safeguarding the public’s right to know was threefold: “The key thing … is to write a definition that’s narrow enough, to make sure the public interest is considered, and that you review it periodically going forward.”

RELATED: C-Span coverage of the hearing; Kenneth Bunting’s testimony.

Public Data Ferret is a news knowledge base program of the Seattle-based 501c3 public charity, Public Eye Northwest. Ferret In The News; Donate.

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