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July 23, 2002,
Records of 9/11 Response Not for Public, City Says
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER (NYT) 1042 words
The Bloomberg administration has concluded that many
of the audio and written records of the Fire Department's actions on
Sept. 11 should never be released to the general public.
The administration, in response to a lawsuit filed in State Supreme
Court in Manhattan by The New York Times seeking numerous records
concerning the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, has cited a
variety of reasons for keeping the records secret. In court papers and
interviews, administration officials and city lawyers have argued that a
federal court order in Virginia has barred them from releasing much of
the material, citing its value in the government's case against Zacarias
Moussaoui, who is accused of being the ''20th hijacker.''
But lawyers for the administration argued that even if the order,
issued by the judge overseeing the prosecution of Mr. Moussaoui, were
amended or lifted, they would still have no intention of releasing
audiotapes of the Fire Department dispatchers, hundreds of individual
accounts of firefighters or transcripts of radio communications from that
The administration has argued that releasing these materials would be
an invasion of privacy for the families of those who died at the trade
center, and for the firefighters who responded to the disaster scene. The
administration has said that that because the requested information
involves ''interagency'' communication, it is exempt under the state
Freedom of Information Law.
''The records requested by The Times were compiled for law enforcement
purposes,'' according to legal documents filed by Michael A. Cardozo, the
city's corporation counsel. He added: ''Second, both the oral histories
and the radio transmissions, especially the 911 calls, contain highly
personal and emotionally charged material. Victims were recorded as they
were experiencing life-threatening circumstances, in some instances as
they were dying.''
Shortly after he was appointed, Mr. Cardozo said that the
administration planned to be much more responsive to media requests for
documents and records than former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's had been.
In its suit, which was filed in May, The Times rejects each of the
city's claims, arguing that much of the material -- some of which has
already been provided to reporters by family members and other sources --
reflects information and images that have been viewed by millions of
people through news accounts, documentaries and books about Sept. 11.
The Times argues that the Moussaoui order binds only the prosecution
and defense, not state and local agencies. The newspaper also argues that
Mr. Moussaoui's prosecution would not be compromised with the release of
this information, and that the interagency argument is also invalid.
''Information about the case permeates the country,'' wrote David E.
McCraw, a lawyer for The Times, in a response to the city's memorandum of
Mr. McCraw added in an interview yesterday: ''The disclosures would
not interfere with law enforcement, they do not reveal intimate personal
details that someone should reasonably think should be secret, or
constitute formal advice. These are documents that have huge historical
and policy value for the city as a whole. They are the accounts of
exactly how that operation worked from the ground level. That is
precisely the kind of thing F.O.I.L. is designed to make public.''
Included in the material that the administration says should never
become public are the oral histories given to Fire Department officials
by scores of firefighters and chiefs after Sept. 11. Administration
officials say that the firefighters and chiefs were promised
confidentiality when they gave their accounts, and that to release them
would violate that promise and reveal everything from opinions about the
city's emergency response to gruesome details of death and damage.
The Times, in its court filings, says the department has failed to
prove that any promise of confidentiality was made to firefighters, and that
senior Fire Department officials were compiling the accounts to create a
Last December, in an interview with a reporter about the oral
histories, Assistant Chief Salvatore J. Cassano, then the Fire
Department's chief of fire operations, said: ''What we are trying to do
is capture the events of the day through the eyes of the firefighters who
were at the scene. It's for historical purposes.''
A former senior official in the Fire Department said yesterday that
the firefighters were, in fact, never told that their remarks would be
kept confidential. ''The histories are more than for historical
purposes,'' said the former official, who spoke on the condition of
anonymity. ''They are of great value to understanding what happened
there. I tend to think that people should be able to see them.''
The Times obtained roughly 70 of these histories independently, and
posted over two dozen of them on its Web site. The histories offer
specific and informed insights on what happened that day, candid
assessments of both the successes and the many problems that plagued the
rescue effort, and insights into how a future attack would be handled.
Mr. Cardozo said of the oral histories: ''The fact that they were not
intended for law enforcement purposes'' does not negate the fact that
''they are being used for law enforcement now. This is the principal
For its part, the Police Department initially released some records
and materials related to Sept. 11, including tapes of its radio
transmissions that day and a map pinpointing the last known locations of
officers who died. The records were all released on request, without news
agencies being asked to submit applications under the state's freedom of
information statute. The Police Department denied a request to review
phone calls received by 911 operators that day, citing a section of the
law that exempts from disclosure records that were compiled for law
As the Moussaoui trial drew closer, police officials cited the
concerns of the federal prosecutors in denying access to additional
materials. If federal prosecutors were to drop their objection to the
disclosure, the department would decide case by case what materials it
would be appropriate to make public, said a police spokesman, Michael