Security loses bid to keep ID technology talks private
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
The White House Office of Homeland Security lost a legal battle to
conceal public records on its discussions of a national ID system
and travel identification technology.
U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled against the
office's motion to dismiss the court case brought by the Electronic
Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a nonprofit watchdog group on the
effects of government activities on civil liberties and privacy.
The group filed the lawsuit in March after the White House office
refused a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to turn
over memos, talking points, reports and draft legislation dealing
with any effort to standardize driver's licenses across the country.
EPIC also sought information on the creation of biometric technology
for a "trusted flier" program to identify airline passengers
through retina and facial scans.
Judge Kollar-Kotelly instead ordered that the case move to the discovery
and deposition phase, a victory for EPIC.
"This decision goes beyond the significance of a specific issue.
The question is whether the activities of the Office of Homeland Security
are going to be subjected to public oversight in the way that every
other federal entity is," said David Sobel, general counsel for
The group has 60 days from the court decision, issued Dec. 26, to
provide documentation that the White House office is an agency and
subject to FOIA.
The White House argues that the office and Homeland Security Director
Tom Ridge are advisers to the president and thus exempt from the act.
"We are in the process of reviewing the opinion and we will be
working with the Department of Justice to determine the appropriate
course of legal action to pursue," said Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman
for the Office of Homeland Security.
"At this point in time, we have a couple of months to file, and
we will have reaction when we determine where we are going,"
Mr. Roehrkasse said.
The case was filed before Congress took action to create the Department
of Homeland Security, which President Bush signed into law Nov. 25.
The legislation contained a clause forbidding the creation of a national
identification card, but Mr. Sobel said a similar program could be
worked around the legislation.
"It continues to be important to know what the White House has
looked at and what was being proposed — it still might be in the works.
There remains a lot of interest in the identification system, whether
in the form of a full-blown ID card or to develop the so-called 'trusted
flier' system. I think those programs are still very much under consideration,"
Mr. Sobel said.
Public access to information in the current Homeland Security Office
also is necessary because the office will oversee creation of the
new department in the coming year, he said.
"I think it is now even more important that entity not be beyond
the reach of our open-government laws," Mr. Sobel said.
EPIC has a separate court case pending against the Defense Department
to comply with a Nov. 21 request for copies of records maintained
by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and all documents
related to the Total Information Awareness program.
Critics of the program, designed to collect information to capture
terrorists, say it will violate civil liberties by collecting financial
and other sensitive information of ordinary citizens.