WASHINGTON – Members of a House committee and media professionals on Wednesday questioned what they called the Department of Homeland Security's tendency to withhold information about the country's safety.
Rep. Jim Turner of Texas,the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security,held up several documents from the department with designations such as “for official use only” and “sensitive security information” to demonstrate how the department often designates reports.
The documents pertained to safety measures such as security evaluations at airports,he said.
“If information is withheld from the public,the tendency is for us to think that we are safer than we are,” Turner said at a Capitol Hill hearing.
Turner said he's sure certain points in the documents should be withheld for fear they would provide a blueprint for terrorists. But routinely withholding entire documents from the public threatens “the ability for people to understand the serious lapses that remain in homeland security,” he said.
The panel of media experts at the hearing also said the department withholds information too broadly.
“Some information does need to be closely guarded,” said Frank Sesno,a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax,Va.,and former Washington bureau chief for CNN. “But if there is something in a community that isn't working or secure,don't citizens have a right to know that?”
Scott Armstrong,a former Washington Post reporter who is an advocate for open government,said if Homeland Security officials gave broad information about safety at particular sites but asked that certain details not be published for the country's protection,reporters would oblige,using common sense.
A representative of the Department of Homeland Security could not be reached for comment.
Democrats said they may use the committee's oversight function to regulate how the department disseminates information.
“I think it is something Congress should be concerned about,” said Rep. Norman Dicks,D-Wash.,in an interview after the hearing. “I'm concerned about it.”
A spokeswoman for the committee's Democrats said they are eying more general reform of the department that focuses on broader information sharing to the public and the media.
“This is an issue that's come up before; it's something the committee is looking at,” she said.
A spokesman for Rep. Christopher Cox,R-Calif.,the committee's chairman,said the representative plans to communicate with the department to first determine whether there is a problem with information sharing.
“This was the first time this has been brought to our attention,” the spokesman said. “He certainly intends to look into it,but for the most part he tends to be supportive of the Department of Homeland Security's practices.”
The secrecy issue arose as a tangent in the hearing,which was called to discuss the broadcast media's role in combating terrorism. Members of Congress and panelists agreed that TV and radio outlets play the most important role in informing the public during an attack.
In addition to calling for better communication between emergency management officials and the media,the media witnesses suggested news outlets could better educate their reporters on terrorism issues.
“How many news departments have personnel who understand the dangers of a radiological device – a dirty bomb – and could convey real-time information to the public?” Sesno asked.
Sesno also suggested that just as the DHS has simulated terrorist attacks in Seattle and Chicago to test emergency response capabilities,media organizations should hold similar drills to practice how they would disseminate information during such an event.