Group seeks disclosure waiver for IT protection meetings

Industry representatives advising the Homeland Security Department on protecting the nation's IT resources and other critical infrastructure should be exempt from a law requiring public disclosure and public meetings, according to a presidential advisory committee's working group.

In a report submitted Oct. 11, the National Infrastructure Advisory Council's Sector Partnership Model Working Group urged DHS to waive the requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act for industry groups representing the 17 critical infrastructure sectors.

The recommendation applies to the Sector Coordinating Councils?industry groups covering 17 economic sectors including water, food, health care, banking and transportation?which help to identify vulnerabilities and to facilitate information-sharing with DHS.

The councils include private industry representatives and are mostly self-organized as advisory groups, though they have operated in part under the guidance of federal agencies. For example, the Agriculture Department was designated by the president as the lead federal agency to oversee agriculture protection. Most of the nation's critical infrastructure assets, however, are privately owned.

Under the federal advisory law, such outside advisory groups are required to make their meetings and communications open to the public to avoid secrecy and to discourage perceptions of undue influence and favoritism.

The working group's report casts the councils into a significant role. The councils "represent a primary point of entry for government into the sector," and there must be "continuous and open dialogue between the public and private partners in the model," the working group's report said. "Such interaction may trigger the Federal Advisory Committee Act."

Under Section 871 of the act, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff may exempt an advisory committee from the open communications requirements. The working group urged that he do so for all 17 sector coordinating councils to protect them from being forced to disclose "critical vulnerabilities" within their sectors. Furthermore, requiring public disclosure may hamper emergency communications that may need to occur at a moment's notice between DHS and the sector councils, the report stated.

Unless the exemption is granted, "the necessary information-sharing and advice from the sectors would otherwise be hampered by legal uncertainty," the working group said.

The working group also recommended that all information housed on the Homeland Security Information Network-Critical Sector "remain the property of the private sector and not be subject to a Freedom of Information Act request." Under the freedom of information law, members of the public can obtain access to information used by federal agencies.

The National Infrastructure Advisory Council was expected to approve the working group's recommendation. DHS officials have not said whether they will adopt the recommendation. Officials from the NIAC and DHS did not respond to phone calls requesting comment.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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