How many weapons do security officials at Salt Lake International Airport confiscate each year, and how good a job are they doing to keep air travelers there safe?

Only the Federal Aviation Administration knows for sure, and it denied a Deseret News request and appeal through the Freedom of Information Act for reports that would make that public.The FAA's reason: "Release of the reports would be detrimental to the safety of the traveling public."

That is hard to swallow for reasons that will be shown. But the FAA's action shows how weak the Freedom of Information Act is, and how bureaucrats may easily and legally sidestep its provisions if they so choose - and they often do, resulting in government by secrecy.

For some background, the Deseret News last June requested copies of monthly "screening activities reports," FAA Form 1650-7, which airport officials said report how many weapons are confiscated and what type.

Airport officials said they feel they are doing a good job in keeping travelers safe, and the Deseret News wanted the reports to verify that and provide details.

The Freedom of Information Act says all reports compiled by the federal government should be open to the public unless they fall under one of nine exemptions, which generally are designed to protect national security, ongoing investigations and information gathered in confidence.

The FAA said this particular request fell under exemption No. 3, which says information protected from release by laws besides the FOIA do not have to be released.

In this case, the FAA claimed the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 said it doesn't have to release any information that FAA administrators feel contains "information of a security nature about a specific airport."

That essentially gives the FAA carte blanche to wave its magic wand and declare any report it wants to be of that type, which allows little outside review and criticism of its work. For such reasons, journalists often call FOIA exemption No. 3 the "catch-all" exemption.

The Deseret News could challenge the denial in court, but as the FAA said in its letters, courts virtually always leave the determination of what is sensitive to security up to the experts - which in this case legally happens to be the FAA.

Ironically, while the FAA will not release information about how many weapons are confiscated at individual airports, it does say how many total weapons are confiscated nationwide. In 1987, that was 3,012 handguns, 99 long guns, 141 other types of firearms and 14 explosive devices.

How does release of such national statistics jeopardize travelers any less than would the release of similar statistics on an airport-by-airport basis?

Other agencies that perform similar metal detector searches release such information without any apparent ill effects. For example, two weeks ago the U.S. Capitol police gave an annual report that it confiscated 1,835 weapons last year - including 25 guns, 21 stun guns, two starter pistols, 68 knives, 1,687 cans of Mace and tear gas and 32 other items, including billyclubs, bottles and brass knuckles.

If the reports requested contained information besides such statistics that could indeed compromise safety at the airport, the FOIA allows such portions of reports to be blacked out. But the law says all other portions of reports should be released.

Also worth mentioning are delays associated with the FOIA. Agencies are supposed to provide requested information or deny it within 10 days of the request. Because of work backlogs, that usually turns into months, sometimes years. One FOIA request the Deseret News is pursuing with the FBI has been going on without resolution for nearly three years.

In short, even though the FOIA says federal information should almost always be released, bureaucrats can make it next to impossible if they choose to do so. Only Congress tightening loopholes or constant court challenges may change that.