A day after the Freedom of Information Act turned 40, USA Today reported that Congress had approved a $1 million grant to an obscure law school. Researchers, the paper reported, would spend the cash searching for “ways to restrict public access to sensitive government data through freedom of information laws.” The grant to the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University Law School in San Antonio had been tacked to a Defense Department appropriations bill.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a St. Mary’s graduate and a vocal supporter of the grant, claims the purpose of the study is the opposite of what the USA Today account indicated. The study is directed not at the federal Freedom of Information Act, he says, but at state laws that limit access to information; it is intended to improve access, not restrict it further. A spokesperson from his office explains, “It’s about a balance between national security and information.”
Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Sunshine in Government Initiative, remain skeptical. One reason is the Center for Terrorism Law’s strong military connections: Its director is a career military officer, and consultants include two retired Army major generals, a colonel who is an Army Reservist, and an active-duty major in the Air Force. “The only civilian consultant,” says an ACLU statement, “is a student who is studying to be a librarian.”
Beyond a statement characterizing the study as an “independent information gathering initiative” without political affiliation, St. Mary’s has refused to comment on the subject of freedom of information. Even if the purpose of the study turns out to be as benign as Cornyn insists, taxpayers will be left with a puzzle: Why is the Defense Department funding a study of state freedom of information laws?