Bush Administration Plans To Classify Passenger Data

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007

The Bush administration said yesterday that it probably would keep secret many documents requested by a privacy group about the negotiations between the United States and European officials concerning the sharing of airline passenger data.

At a hearing in U.S. District Court, government lawyers told Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle that they expected many of the 2,300 pages of documents sought would be classified and withheld.

In November 2006, the Electronic Frontier Foundation requested records relating to negotiations in 2004 and 2006 to require passenger data from all flights originating in Europe and arriving in the United States. When the government failed to comply with the Freedom of Information Act request in a timely manner, the group sued.

In the spring, Huvelle told the government it must meet the request by Nov. 1. Two weeks before the deadline, the Department of Homeland Security asked for an indefinite stay of the proceedings, citing "unanticipated circumstances," such as a recommendation by a senior official to classify a "significant number" of documents.

"Release of these documents would harm our relations" with the European Union and European Commission, said Paul Rosenzweig, Homeland Security deputy assistant secretary for policy, in a declaration filed to the court last month. He said U.S. officials "had come to an understanding with the E.U. and E.C. that our negotiations would be kept confidential."

Yesterday, Huvelle said the documents would need to be reviewed and produced by April 30.

"It's kind of late in the game" to raise the need for the delay, she said, according to the Associated Press.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Keehner said the department had produced a number of documents since the spring. "We may be withholding some documents based on the fact that they are classified materials," she said, "but will continue to provide documents that are not otherwise subject to FOIA exemptions."

David Sobel, senior counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the agreement on sharing passenger data raises "controversial privacy issues on both sides of the Atlantic" because it involves personal information on millions of air travelers.

"While the Bush administration has consistently tried to conceal the details from public view," he said, "we are hopeful that the court's action will at least start the process of determining whether some of the details must be disclosed."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company