Entry for February 07, 2006

The above photograph is of Steven Aftergood,  a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).  In 1997,  Aftergood was the plaintiff in a successful Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency.   This led to the declassification and publication of the total intelligence budget  for the first time in fifty years.   FAS was formed in 1945 by atomic scientists from the Manhattan Project.  Endorsed by Nobel laureates in biology, chemistry, economics, medicine and physics as sponsors, FAS  promotes  humanitarian uses of science and technology. Aftergood directs its Project on Government Secrecy which 

works to  reduce the scope of government secrecy, to accelerate the declassification of cold war documents, and to promote reform of official secrecy practices. 

Yesterday’s issue of his Secrecy News,  announced the  loosening of MSHA’s  Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) disclosure policy. 

The Sago Mine Disaster brought publio attention to criticism of the FOIA policy first raised by Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety and Health News in her July 16, 2004 editorial, “Assault on Freedom of Information: The Public Has A Right to Know How Decisions Are Made” .

Smith  reported complaints from the United Mine Workers for over a year, from mine operators and by her paper that they could no longer get information from MSHA though the FOIA. She stated that the previous week, “Ed Clair, the U.S. Labor Department’s Associate Solicitor for Mine Safety and Health, disclosed that, without public comment or input, MSHA secretly changed its long-standing policy of routinely releasing inspector notes under the Freedom of Information Act.” The prior policy had been in effect since the Mine Act of 1977.

She continued, “Now, the public will no longer be able to get MSHA inspector notes from a mine inspection, unless the operator or miner is willing to go through legal proceedings and the discovery process. Under this new policy, the press is certainly excluded from these notes, miners maybe as well, and it certainly hampers an operator’s ability to resolve many MSHA enforcement disputes without litigation.”

Aftergood reports that on January 11,  Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) asked Labor Secretary Chao to reverse MSHA’s 2004 decision to exclude mine safety inspectors’ notes in FOIA responses. The agency’s secrecy policy limited disclosure about safety violations at the Sago mine for years before the recent disaster.

On January 20,  Education & the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH), Workforce Protections Subcommittee Chairman Charlie Norwood (R-GA) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), sent a letter to Chao, also requesting a reversal.

According to a news release  by Boehner, on January 30,  Acting Assistant Secretary for Mine Health and Safety David G. Dye wrote,

I have recently concluded that, given MSHA’s unique statutory framework, inspector notes should generally be released once a citation has been issued (or an inspection is closed without citations), rather than withholding the notes until all litigation is concluded.  The policy will be effective  immediately.

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