Limits of anti-terrorism

Public records: An overly broad proposal to keep state documents secret demands complete overhaul.

February 28, 2002

IN ITS FIRST incarnation, Gov. Parris N. Glendening's breathtaking effort to withhold public records could hardly have been worse.

Virtually any document deemed "a risk to the public or to the public security" could have been kept secret. The Rand McNally Road Atlas might have been thrown under lock and key under that formula.

Fortunately, Mr. Glendening's staff has refined its first draft. A series of amendments, amounting to an entirely new bill, offers a more reasoned and rational approach to withholding information that might be of use to terrorists.

The Senate Committee on Education, Health and Environmental Affairs is scheduled to hold a hearing on the revised measure, SB240, today at 1 p.m.

The reshaped proposal sets out a two-step process under which access to documents could be denied.

First, it defines three kinds of information that would be protected: vulnerability assessments of government facilities that might be attacked; plans for responding to terrorist attacks; and various security procedures.

An assessment of the Bay Bridge, the Calvert Cliffs nuclear facility or the State House, for example, would, by definition, pinpoint weaknesses. That sort of document could be kept secret. Likewise, the government's plans for responding to terrorist sites would be off limits because, in other countries, terrorists have targeted those very efforts.

In the second step, information could be withheld only if it specifically jeopardized the security of a structure, if it might facilitate the planning of an attack, or if it endangered an individual. The administration believes the second part of its test poses a substantial burden of proof on an official seeking to deny access to a document.

In one of its most important changes, the governor's staff would leave with government agencies the task of proving that a particular record should not be made public. The governor's original bill would have transferred the burden of proof to a citizen or a reporter in search of a document.

What has happened in the shaping of this delicate legislation - so far - appears to balance the citizens' right to open government with the new reality of the world after Sept. 11.

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