BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The Homeland Security Act passed this week by both houses of Congress will result in the biggest overhaul of the federal bureaucracy in 50 years. It will also have broad ramifications for the relationship between the federal government and its citizens. Among other changes it will allow the government authority to deny previously routine requests under the Freedom of Information Act. For instance, vulnerabilities of power plants could be hidden from view, a circumstance that concerns Mark Tapscott. He's the director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation, and he joins me now. Mark, welcome!
MARK TAPSCOTT: Thank you very much - it's good to be here!
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's start with the obvious -- what is it about the Homeland Security Act that threatens us?
MARK TAPSCOTT: Well my particular concern deals with a particular section in it that declares that "material and information and data that a private company voluntarily makes available to the government as part of the effort against terrorism would be exempt from the FOI. You don't have to be a Harvard lawyer to imagine the many ways that one could construe all kinds of things to be related to the war on terrorism.
BOB GARFIELD:Well in dealing with Freedom of Information requests in the past, the government has always been able to invoke in a broad way national security as a reason for not disclosing information--
MARK TAPSCOTT: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: -- that journalists or any citizen is seeking. Why is it materially different to have this anti-terrorism component in the act?
MARK TAPSCOTT: Well I've been a, a journalist for 15 years now and I was in government before then in both the executive branch and the legislative branch, and I can tell you that government will inevitably tend to interpret its own statutes and regulations to its own benefit, and that's the problem with this. On its face perhaps it does seem somewhat specific -- in fact, it's not. It says "all information voluntarily turned over" that has to do with critical infrastructure issues in the war on terrorism. That is a broad, broad category of potential kinds of information and as the years go by and there are new regulations issues and there are more court cases that deal with specific situations that, that will tend to become even broader. And what you end up with is an invitation to a wholesale diversion from public disclosure of a lot of information that the people ought to be, ought to be able to see.
BOB GARFIELD:Now you had a piece in the Washington Post and in it was a delicious detail, [LAUGHTER] and it harkened back to June 20th of 1966 when a young Congressman stood on the floor of the house, passionately advocating the need for the then-under consideration under the Freedom of Information Act, and that young Congressman was?
MARK TAPSCOTT: As a matter of fact he's the Secretary of Defense today, Donald Rumsfeld. [LAUGHTER] He was one of the co-sponsors of the original Freedom of Information Act in 1966, and if you go back in the Congressional Record and lead--and read the floor speeches, he actually made two notable speeches on behalf of the FOI, and they were, as you said, very passionate and, and absolutely right on the mark.
BOB GARFIELD: Oh, sweet irony, because the Pentagon now is after all a serial non-discloser of un-classified information.
MARK TAPSCOTT: Now, now, Bob -- I detect a certain note of cynicism. [LAUGHTER]
BOB GARFIELD:Well that actually gets to my next question or observation - I don't know what it is, but I want to point out that you are not from the American Civil Liberties Union, you're not from the sort of usual suspects on the left --you're representing the Heritage Foundation which is widely and I think accurately described as a conservative think tank. You're not one of the Chicken Littles of Liberalism speaking here. [LAUGHTER] So-- should we take special note of what you're saying?
MARK TAPSCOTT: Well I'm not so sure that maybe some of my colleagues in the Bush administration might be wondering if you're right about that. Me not being one of the Chicken Littles. But I believe that accountability in government is a fundamental First Amendment issue that, that there should really be no surprise that conservatives would be very concerned about it.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Mark; thanks very much.
MARK TAPSCOTT: Bob, it has been a pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Tapscott is the [LAUGHTER] director of Center for Media and Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation. [MUSIC]