Court strengthens FOIA — sort of

Glen Milner, a longtime community activist in Washington state, contends people who live near the Navy’s main West Coast ammunition dump, in the vicinity of Port Townsend, have a right to know whether they would be endangered by any explosion there.

An explosion at the Navy’s Port Chicago ammunition depot during World War II killed 320 people.

An official at an area submarine base provided Mr. Milner a map showing the probable range of damage from an explosion at the ammunition facility, but when he filed a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act for official maps showing the likely extent of such damage, the Navy turned him down, making broad use of an FOIA exemption which allows federal agencies to keep secret matters which relate to their “personnel rules and practices.”

A federal appeals court sided with the Navy. But on Monday the U.S. Supreme Court, by a lopsided 8-1 vote, told the Navy to provide the maps.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court, said the “personnel rules and practices” exemption could not be stretched far enough to justify keeping the maps secret.

Justice Kagan said the Navy may have legitimate interests in keeping the maps out of public circulation, but if so they could merely stamp the maps “classified,” which would keep them from being disclosed under FOIA.

Or the Navy could perhaps rely on another FOIA provision that protects law enforcement information in some circumstances, she said.

And so we confront the curious spectacle of a court correctly ruling the default setting should allow the public to know anything about its own business save for a few limited exceptions — while at the same time the very justice who writes for the majority coaches the federal agency to “try it this way” the next time they want to stymie a request.

Of course the armed forces have information that should be safe from public exposure. But it wouldn’t take some super-spy to find out where the Navy stores its surplus ammo, or to figure out that a pretty big bang could result if a malefactor could get at them.

Mr. Milner wasn’t seeking information about when the ammo dump’s perimeter is patrolled. He wanted to know how far away from the facility you’d have to live to be safe.

It was a good ruling. It’s the fine print that’s worrisome.

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