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The Freedom of Information Act provides the press and public with a vital window on the operations of government and the businesses it regulates. But a new exemption buried deep within the House-passed Homeland Security Act threatens to reduce the public's access to information in a way that could have serious implications for public safety.

The exemption passed by the House would prevent public release of any information on critical infrastructure submitted to the government by private industry. At first glance, there seems to be a rational basis for such an exemption. Much of this nation's vulnerable infrastructure _ chemical plants, computer networks, energy companies _ is privately owned. For the government to understand the extent of the risk to these interests, industry must be encouraged to provide information on its soft spots. A narrow exemption to keep highly sensitive information from the public might be warranted. And, in fact, such language is part of the Senate version of the Homeland Security Act.

But the White House is not interested in narrow exemptions. The broad language in the House version is what it wants and what it is likely to get. Senate Democrats seem poised to accept the House language as a way to move the bill along.

Here's why this will create a problem for public health and safety: Companies that maintain hazardous environments for employees or have serious vulnerabilities that could endanger the local population could use the exemption as a way to conceal the data.

To avoid media exposure, a company would only have to submit self-incriminating documents as critical infrastructure information. Industry could submit all sorts of information and call it critical infrastructure. That way, regulators, consumer groups and the media would be precluded from seeing it, giving industries a tool to insulate themselves from a degree of government and public oversight. Industries, however, wouldn't be released of their responsibility to submit regular safety and environmental reports to other regulatory agencies, and those would remain as accessible as they are today.

The Bush administration and conservative lawmakers are using national security as a screen to create a substantial loophole in a law protecting the public's right to know. The Senate should not pass the House version of the bill unless this provision is changed.

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