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9/11 Change: Yes We Should!

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Recently, our government excluded the 9/11 victims' families from attending the arraignment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other terror suspects at the military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay. Initially, none of the families, with the exception of ardent Bush supporter Debra Burlingame, were invited.

After this issue became public, the resultant furor caused Debra Burlingame to be dis-invited and a system was established whereby the 9/11 victims' families could observe future sessions via CCTV coverage at various military bases on the east coast. In addition, a lottery system was established so that selected family members, who may want to attend the trial at Guantanamo Bay, will be provided an opportunity to participate.

Despite this change of heart, which we're sure was prompted by the outrage accompanying the original decision, it is this type of callous action which we've come to expect from the current Administration. Considering that many of the 9/11 families had already expressed their desire to view these trials, as early as last February, and the obvious public interest, it boggles the mind that tribunal officials failed to have something in place for the arraignment. Even worse, their ineptitude violated Public Law 108-405, the Justice for All Act, in that none of the 9/11 families, to include Debra Burlingame, were invited to attend.

While the military tribunal is scheduled to kick off this September, the seven remaining plaintiffs, in the ongoing 9/11 litigation in Judge Hellerstein's Manhattan courtroom, continue their fight to establish a public archive of information uncovered in discovery. Meanwhile, the airline defendants try to obfuscate their liability by abusing the intent of a protective order narrowly intended for proprietary information.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) has filed an Amicus brief in this regard correctly noting the public's interest in learning about how the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001 occurred in order to help ensure they don't recur. Information in this litigation directly addresses those questions and may provide answers to a public that has been seeking closure and resolution for going on seven years.

During the death penalty phase of the Zacarias Moussaoui proceedings, evidence provided to the terrorist's defense team was refused to the relatives of his victims, while TSA attorney Carla Martin's alleged collusion with aviation industry attorneys nearly sabotaged the prosecution.

Just last month there was yet another example whereby the public's right to know, the First Amendment and freedom of information interests were trampled. Judge Frank Maas closed the doors to his court when the defendants in the trial to bankrupt terrorism argued for privacy consideration.

Excessive government secrecy and corporate abuse of protective orders have been the cornerstones of an effort to prevent the 9/11 victims' families from achieving legitimate discovery. This, in turn, has limited our public access.

The terrorists attacked us on 9/11, but our government and the aviation industry made it easy for them. Now, both spend time, effort and resouces trying to hide that fact from the American public, rather than using those resources to make appropriate reforms in order to protect us against further attacks.

Both of us have been responsible for handling sensitive information during our careers. The last thing we want is for any information useful to our enemy to be released. Nevertheless, it is past time to provide for transparency instead of the current process, which abuses the rights of those most adversely impacted by the brutal 9/11 attacks.

Protecting information in the interests of national security is one thing; using secrecy to protect corporate America or to preclude embarassment to our government is another. The latter is unhelpful and inexcusable.

The US House of Representatives, Homeland Security Committee, held a hearing on June 11th during which they approved HR 6193, the "Improving Public Access to Documents Act of 2008." This may not be the perfect bill, but it certainly demonstrates the need to address the issues we've raised. Now, if we can just get our presidential nominees to address these concerns in their upcoming town meetings and debates, perhaps we can actually make some progress.

Co-written by Brian F. Sullivan, FAA Spec Agent (Ret) and myself and originally posted at Opinion

P.S. Coincidentally, I just got back from an all-day "good government type" conference in Washington DC, the main topic of which was the need to enact "whistleblowing" protection for public and private sector employees, especially in the intellligence and national security areas. Congress has repeatedly recognized the need for whistleblower reform law--for instance the House passed it by over a 3 to 1 ratio in 2007 but the law has yet to be enacted. With all the government secrecy, such protection for those who dare to commit the truth is desperately needed as it's about the only way to uncover the true fraud, waste and abuse going on as well as exposing gaps and mistakes putting public safety at risk.

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