Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta is giving broad new authority to agency officials to classify previously public documents and withhold them from any public scrutiny.

Mineta’s directive went into effect when it was signed Jan. 5. But it was not publicized by the department until it was published in the Jan. 18 issue of the Federal Register. It says information that agency officials regard as being sensitive involving “all modes of transportation” will be exempted from release under the Freedom of Information Act, or during court proceedings on civil suits.

Mineta’s action is part of a government-wide effort in the wake of 9/11 to restrict public access to information that doesn’t involve government secrets but involves material that could be used by terrorists to spot vulnerabilities in America’s infrastructure. Congress, in creating the new Department of Homeland Security, changed federal law to direct federal agencies to secure information involving America’s vast transportation networks.

Environmentalists were alarmed that the agency could use the regulation to restrict the release of information under lucrative government contracts for new highways and other transportation projects.

In response to a reporter’s question, the department issued a statement saying “information previously available to the public, such as environmental impact statements and safety statistics, will continue to be accessible according to laws protecting public access.”

The agency said Mineta’s decision to delegate authority to lower-level government employees to declare documents “security sensitive” was a matter of efficiency.

“This approach will share with those responsible for watching over the nation’s aviation, rail, transit, highway, shipping and pipeline networks the authority to protect documents like maps of subway ventilation systems or underwater bridge supports, keeping them away from those who might try to use such information to hurt innocent people or destroy critical infrastructure,” the agency statement said.

Steven Aftergood, an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists who monitors government secrecy, said he worries that the authority could be applied broadly, with the public having no way to know what critical information the government is withholding.

“It’s another move toward a ‘trust me’ government. They tell us they don’t intend to withhold environmental impact information, but the regulation permits them to do so. They say they don’t intend to withhold contract information, but the regulation permits them to do so,” Aftergood said. “I think it’s badly designed. It minimizes checks and balances and maximizes government authority.”

Aftergood said restricting information on the transportation infrastructure means that non-government engineers won’t be able to point out design flaws or safety problems on new projects. “Making information widely available permits more minds to be brought to bear on problems,” he said, recalling that a preoccupation with keeping routine information secret was one reason the Soviet Union collapsed.

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)