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The CIA Memo Transparency Test

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By Robert Charette April 23, 2009

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It was probably the stark absurdity of the situation that created the final decision tipping point: release classified documents relating to the CIA waterboarding of captured Al Qaeda members, but move mightily to keep information about aircraft bird strikes from the public.

Transportation Department Secretary Ray LaHood yesterday sensibly ordered FAA to reverse its proposal to make the bird strike data off limits to the public. "Public disclosure is our job," LaHood wrote on his blog.

Amen.

FAA had argued that allowing the public access to the information might unduly scare the flying public away; it also argued that allowing such access would make airlines and airports less likely to report bird strikes.

Of course, FAA never provided any facts to back up its worries, which appear absurd on the face of it. It appears even more so when one considers that a) the number of bird strikes have quadrupled from around 1,750 in 1990 to some 7,600 in 2007, b) the number of bird strikes reported have kept growing despite the data being widely available to the public for years, and c) the continued increase in passenger volume has grown steadily over those same years despite the 400 percent plus increase in bird strikes.

Now, I may not mingle in the right circles, but I have never encountered anyone telling me that they were afraid of flying because of a bird striking a plane. Weather? Yes. Bird strikes? No. (Maybe FAA should instead make local airport weather reports secret?)

Of course, some passengers may now be afraid of flying because of potential bird strikes because of all the attention FAA has managed to successfully create about the issue.

Anyway, tomorrow, FAA's bird-strike database will be made public here. I will be most interested to see how much airline traffic falls off or how the reporting of bird strikes declines over the next 12 months.

However, returning to the release of the CIA waterboarding memos: It may have inadvertently set a new threshold for keeping government information from the public. It is going to be hard to argue that almost any government data, other than legal in nature or critical to national security information, shouldn't now be released.

After all, if the CIA memos can be made public, then why can't (insert document name here) be released?

We can call it the CIA Memo Threshold Test of Government Transparency: CIA MeT To GovTrans? The acronym needs a little help.

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