A federal judge in New Jersey has ordered the U.S. government to provide a Baltimore writer and his co-author access to some, but not all, of the previously secret documents they had sought for a book on the 1934 Morro Castle steamship fire.
Frederick N. Rasmussen, of Riderwood, and Robert J. McDonnell, of Lakehurst, N.J., filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act more than three years ago after the FBI and the Navy repeatedly blocked their access to key documents.
The historians think the ship was tied to politically embarrassing gun-running to both sides in a Cuban revolution half a century ago, but the government has tried to keep the details under wraps.
U.S. District Court Judge Anne E. Thompson, in Trenton, last week upheld the findings of a federal magistrate, Freda L. Wolfson, who had recommended the release of some documents the writers sought.
Other portions can continue to be withheld for reasons of national security and privacy, Thompson said.
Rasmussen, a photo librarian at the Baltimore Sun, said yesterday he was "absolutely thrilled" with the ruling. But he called it "astonishing . . . to think that 57 years later there would be a pitched battle over something from a different time."
"It's been a real journey," McDonnell said of the court fight. "We were very naive, both of us," about how long the case would take.
The government has 30 days in which to file an appeal of Thompson's order, "but we certainly hope that common sense prevails and the matter ends here," McDonnell said.
Bette Uhrmacher, the assistant U.S. attorney who represented the government in the case, said yesterday that "since the matter is still in litigation, our office will have no comment." She would not say whether the government would appeal.
Joseph Hillman, the authors' attorney, said the case is not a landmark Freedom of Information decison, but may set a minor legal precedent if it upheld on appeal.
"It does help to expand, to a minor degree, the public's right to information of historical interest," he said.
Specifically, Hillman said, Judge Wolfson ruled that, in order to withhold information on grounds that its release would violate an informant's confidentiality, the government must prove that the informant was expressly promised confidentiality. Implied assurances aren't enough.
"That may very well affect a substantial amount of information in FBI cases, especially in old cases where express assurances [of confidentiality] cannot be found," Hillman said. "That could potentially produce a substantial amount of additional information for us."
The Morro Castle caught fire off the coast of Asbury Park, N.J., on Sept. 6, 1934. It ran aground and burned to the waterline. One hundred thirty-four people died.
The authors believe the fire was deliberately set in an intricate conspiracy involving insurance fraud and clandestine government shipments of guns to both sides in a Cuban revolution.
They say they have evidence that the government investigation of the disaster was reined in, and evidence was covered up, at the behest of high government officials and other politically well-connected figures of the day.
Some of the government's reluctance to release documents in a 57-year-old case, McDonnell said, may be the result of bureaucrats applying today's guidelines to "vintage cases where they are not appropriate."
"But there is also something that smells," he said. That "something" may be hidden in documents which Judge Thompson agreed should continue to be kept secret for reasons of "national security."
"If they are asserting that [national security]," McDonnell said, "there is a reason for it."
In her recommendations to Judge Thompson, Wolfson said the FBI and the Navy should release documents that had been previously withheld solely for privacy reasons if the people involved are dead.
But she also cocluded that Rasmussen and McDonnell had failed to exhaust their "administrative remedies" under the Freedom of Information Act with respect to other documents and so were not yet entitled to a court order releasing them.
Wolfson also found that the FBI can could withhold documents holding clues to 1934 FBI codes.
While the coded Morro Castle documents may be harmless, she said, access to both the coded and decoded versions could provide a "hostile entity" with the ability to decode other messages that used the same codes, "to the detriment of national security."
Rasmussen and McDonnell also were denied access to Morro Castle grand jury evidence and to medical information in the personnel file of a living Morro Castle figure. But Wolfson said they were entitled to juvenile court records of one of the key suspects in the ship fire, because they already had been published elsewhere.