Editor's Note

The FOI Advocate is a compendium of ideas, edited story excerpts and other materials from a variety of Web sites, as well as original concepts and analysis. When the information comes directly from another source, it will be attributed and a link will be provided whenever possible. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited. We will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

Monday, April 16, 2007

FOI at work...

Jim Leusner, an FOI warrior, has just published a piece that uses FOIA to detail NASA's payments to the seven Columbia astronauts. It's an interesting look at NASA policy in the wake of a terrible tragedy....

From the Orlando Sentinel:

NASA paid $26.6 million to the families of seven astronauts who died aboard space shuttle Columbia -- a settlement that has been kept secret for more than 21/2 years.

The space agency recruited former FBI Director William Webster, also a former federal judge, to act as a mediator and adviser in negotiating the out-of-court settlements, according to documents released to the Orlando Sentinel through a federal Freedom of Information Act request.

The newspaper's request yielded just seven pages of documents that leave many questions unanswered, including exactly when the settlements occurred.

In an interview with the Sentinel, Webster, also a former CIA director, said he was bound by confidentiality and couldn't discuss details of the agreements, but defended the process as proper.

"The members of the [survivors'] families wanted this to be a private matter," said Webster, a consulting partner in Washington with the international law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. "They were healing, and they were ready to discuss, properly, their rights. . . . Everyone felt it had a better chance of coming together without seeing their name in lights."

In brief written responses to Sentinel questions Friday, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said little about the settlements, citing family privacy. He said the money came from the agency's budget via a 2004 congressional appropriation.

"The Columbia astronauts were our friends and co-workers," Beutel wrote. "Our concern always has been with the crew's families and their loss, and as a result NASA didn't announce details of the settlement in an effort to protect the personal privacy of the Columbia families."

Former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and ex-general counsel Paul Pastorek, who helped set up the settlement process, did not return phone calls and e-mails.

Dr. Jon Clark, widower of astronaut Laurel Blair Salton Clark, said NASA was "deferential" in dealing with the families through a turbulent period in their lives.

"We were in a state of shock," he said. "To go the lawsuit route, it's very painful and very protracted. So we settled."

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said he understood the families' desire for privacy but criticized NASA for not disclosing the settlements earlier. NASA, he said, is behaving as if the settlement is a source of embarrassment.

"It's not NASA's money. It's public money," he said.

No comments: