Federal agencies are not living up to their responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act.
On Sept. 6, I wrote to the Air Force's Inspection and Safety Center at Norton Air Force Base, Calif., requesting information about problems discovered last June with an MX missile near Cheyenne, Wyo.During an inspection, an electrical line was found disconnected while the missile was in its silo. Two stages were shipped back to Utah for dissection, to unravel what went wrong.
An investigation team was set up by Lt. Gen. Richard A. Burpee, commander of the Strategic Air Command's 15th Air Force.
Wyoming anti-MX activists think the whole story isn't being told. They think the Air Force is covering up, that missile was lying against the silo's walls, and that because of toxic material in the MX, the public was in danger.
One resident of the Cheyenne area told me she heard that a civilian specialist had said things were so dangerous around the silo that he refused to go there, and was fired for it.
This incident raises a hosts of concerns about the safety of missiles, several components of which are made in Utah. If it might explode in Wyoming, might it not pose a danger to its manufacturers, or highway traffic?
My letter, citing the Freedom of Information Act, was addressed to an expert at the Inspection and Safety Center, Vincent Murone, whose name and address were given to me by the center's Lt. Col. William A. Neighbors. The center is investigating the malfunction.
"I would like to learn anything I could about the investigation, particularly the cause of the malfunction and whether any civilians were in danger.
"Also, if this happens to be covered, I'd like to know if it is true that a contractor employee was fired for refusing to enter the silo, as he was fearful of dangerous material that might have leaked," the letter said.
Under the law, a response to a FOIA request must be made by the agency involved within 10 working days of receipt of the request. As this column is written, exactly one month has passed without any response.
I called Murone this week to inquire about the delay, and he said the reply, "Hasn't gone out of the building yet. It's circulating right now up to the front office for signature of the chief of staff."
On Aug. 29, Velma Eaton of Duck Creek Village, located within Dixie National Forest, sent a letter to the forest asking for information about planned logging projects that will severely impact her subdivision and other communities in the area.
She was luckier than I was: at least she had a reply. But the response was wholly inadequate, and failed to comply with FOIA.
Forest Supervisor Hugh C. Thompson wrote her, "As Cathy (Barbouletos, a public relations official) pointed out, you will be billed for the cost of putting this information together. Cathy quoted an estimated price in the neighborhood of $150 to fulfill items 7 and 8," Thompson wrote.
"The actual cost may vary depending on the time required to research the documents, the cost of duplication and the clarification of your request. Payment must be made prior to receiving those documents."
Under the FOIA, agencies may waive fees if information released would be in the public interest. Certainly, wanting to know about timber sales in one's neighborhood is a public-interest sort of query.
Thompson's letter not only didn't say fees could be waived, it never even mentioned that appeals are possible on the subject.
Also, Forest Service officials didn't attempt to give Eaton any such information later. "They did not tell me anything," Easton said.
She complained that the Forest Service is trying to wear down local citizens by forcing them to fight, and pay for information, for each timber sale. It would be done sale by sale, she said.
"Nobody's going to have enough money to fight," she said. Also, if all the trees in her Duck Creek Village are cut down, "what interest are we going to have in going ahead and fighting to save the trees in the next subdivision?"
The FOIA is intended to help people know what their government is doing. Under its philosophy, unless there's some good reason, government actions should be exposed to public view.
Agencies should work hard to carry out the spirit of the law. If they'd live up to its promises, this would be a more open and democratic society.
But if these cases are any indication of how agencies respond, they're not even living up to the letter of the law, let along the spirit.