Coast Guard won’t reveal names of people rescued

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The U.S. Coast Guard has announced it will withhold the names of people saved in rescue cases unless they are part of an “open and active” search-and-rescue operation.

Once a rescue case is closed, queries for names must be made through a Freedom of Information Act request. The new nationwide policy was revealed in a directive released Aug. 24 by Rear Adm. David Pekoske, assistant commandant for operations. The policy went into effect immediately.

The directive acknowledges that “the release of information to the public concerning individuals being sought or having been rescued by the Coast Guard often supports the [search-and-rescue] mission.”

The Coast Guard says the new rule protects the privacy of those rescued.

“We wanted to balance the privacy right of individuals with the public’s need to know when search-and-rescue cases are active,” said Coast Guard spokeswoman Angela Hirsch. “When a boat is missing, we put out the names of people who are missing. There are many cases where people are reported missing, and they turn up or are not missing. Obviously, there is a need for names to be released in these cases. But once a case is resolved, it is no longer open, and names are then not releasable without an FOI request.”

Loren Cochran, an attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the Coast Guard’s new policy was troubling.

“Any time you have a government agency that refuses to turn over information that the public is legally entitled to, it causes real concern,” Cochran said. “In this case, it looks like the Coast Guard has developed a practice in which they are controlling when to disclose the names of those rescued. That selective disclosure makes the public wonder, ‘Why?’ Is it because the Coast Guard only wants to disclose positive information?”

A Sept. 7 Navy Times article reported that the new policy was the result of a two-year review. That review was prompted in 2005 when Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Amanda Garrett, who was researching a story about people apparently being repeatedly saved in ice rescues on Lake Erie, requested the names of those rescued by the Coast Guard during that and previous winters. Her request was denied.

At that time, Coast Guard policies varied in different districts. Some would release the names of people rescued, but others would not.

The Coast Guard has said the new policy was the result of a collaborative effort.

“The office of public affairs, the office of general law and the office of search and rescue each provided input to our policy on the release of names during active search-and-rescue cases,” Coast Guard spokesman Cmdr. Jeff Carter told the Navy Times. “This policy balances the obligation of the Coast Guard to communicate its activities to the American people and our obligation to safeguard the privacy of individuals we rescue.”

An editorial published in the Mobile, Ala., Press-Register on Sept. 12 opposed the new directive: “The Coast Guard should reconsider this ill-conceived policy. The names of the people it searches for and saves are a vital part of the public record.”

Cochran noted that since the new rule was issued in late August, Coast Guard districts nationwide have varied in their enforcement of the policy. Press releases from several different Coast Guard offices, including New York, Miami, Houston and Seattle, revealed the names of people rescued in cases that were no longer “open and active.”

In Boston, a recent distress call, later proved to be hoax, cost the Coast Guard nearly $30,000 for a search mission. The Coast Guard later issued a press release saying that the call had been traced to a cell phone, but the release did not disclose the cell phone owner’s name.

“When something goes well, and a rescue is done well, there’s no reason the Coast Guard shouldn’t receive accolades,” Cochran said. “On the other hand, if something goes wrong, the information should be publicly accessible.”

Lydia Hailman King is a University of Mississippi graduate with degrees in journalism, international studies and French.

Tags: , ,