The Defense Department is sending St. Mary's University School of Law $1 million to help fight terrorism by studying ways to limit the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, a landmark open government law that celebrated its 40th anniversary Tuesday.
Jeffrey Addicott, who heads the school's Center for Terrorism Law, said the purpose of the yearlong project is to find ways to rewrite the law to prevent terrorists from getting sensitive information about water, sewer, electricity and transportation systems.
The project's end product will be a "model" statute that state governments or Congress can adopt, he said.
"The mission is to balance increase in security with civil liberties, which are precious," said Addicott, a former legal adviser in the Army Special Forces. But "in a time of war, balance goes toward security."
Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act on July 4, 1966. Through so-called sunshine laws, citizens can attend government meetings and get access to government records.
Addicott said the proposal originated with the Center for Terrorism Law, the first of its kind in the nation.
Congress passed the $1 million grant as part of this year's defense budget, and the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., will administer the grant.
Bill Piatt, dean of St. Mary's Law School, said the center's work, while paid for by the government, is completely independent.
"What we are doing is not political," Piatt said. "We are not enacting the statutes; we are not lobbying politicians. We are doing academic research."
Some scholars, while intrigued, said they also are troubled.
"My first response is that this is a reasonable thing for any nation to do in the post-9-11 arena," said Char Miller, a history professor at Trinity University, referring to efforts to protect infrastructure. But "it does need to be very cautious. I would not want St. Mary's to be in a position where it is providing legal cover for an administration to act in a way that will actually diminish the civil rights of American citizens."
Since the 9-11 attacks, Congress and 41 states have blocked access to some records and meetings to keep information from terrorists. Addicott said his project aims to study each state's laws and consult with an array of scholars on whether they have gone too far or not far enough.
Paul McMasters, a public information expert at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., said reconciling discrepancies in law "is not a bad idea."
"But for this to be done at the direction of a federal agency where secrecy is paramount and where confusion is frequent gives one pause," he added.
Addicott frequently appears on cable news shows and writes articles backing the administration's anti-terrorism policies, such as military tribunals.
He also has criticized the administration over the indefinite detention of undocumented immigrants suspected of terror acts, calling it unconstitutional.
He said he believes it's only a matter of time before terrorists figure out how to hack into computers that run the nation's infrastructure.
So far, Addicott said, he doesn't know of any terrorists who have used freedom of information laws to get such information, but he believes it is inevitable that they will.
"They don't need bombs anymore," he said. "They can hack in and tell the Hoover Dam to release the water."
Randy Sanders, president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and retired editor of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, sharply criticized the project.
"It seems like we're just losing all our freedoms in the name of homeland security, and I just wonder where the real threat is," he said. "We're not going to keep terrorists from finding out about power plants and water supplies by tightening the Freedom of Information Act."
McMasters made a similar point, saying the best security often comes from public pressure to fix weaknesses once they are exposed.
"We are not restricting anything from those seeking to harm us," he said, "but we are keeping in the dark the citizenry who might generate pressure to reduce vulnerabilities."