One of the nation's largest defense contractors is suing the Pentagon to prevent the release of Black Hawk helicopter production inspection records, saying they would reveal confidential information to its competitors.
But the Bush administration disagrees with Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., whose helicopters are heavily used by the military in Iraq, Afghanistan and missions throughout the world.
The administration, better known for keeping government information secret, is asking a federal judge in Washington to release the records to Alan M. Cohn, a reporter for a television station based in New Haven.
Cohn is investigating whether mechanical failures have caused Black Hawk helicopters to crash in Iraq. His quest for information began in 2003 after several Sikorsky employees told him they were worried that defective parts had caused a series of deadly crashes in Iraq that year.
Cohn believes the records would shed light on whether the Defense Department had raised concerns with Sikorsky about the quality of the helicopter's machinery.
The records in question - called Corrective Action Requests - are a way for the Defense Department to inform a contractor that it is not complying with the Pentagon's safety and performance standards, said Dick Finnegan, associate general counsel of the Defense Contract Management Agency.
In one such record obtained by Cohn, a Pentagon official wrote:
"The recent succession of production problems indicates to us a steady decline in SAC's (Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation's) ability to identify and correct manufacturing and production deficiencies." The Pentagon official noted in the document that the most notable of 19 cited examples is the "installation of unqualified parts."
On March 2, 2004, Cohn filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain all inspection reports related to the Black Hawk dating back to 2003 and for Sikorsky's responses to the reports. The Defense Contract Management Agency denied Cohn's request two months later.
Cohn appealed and upon review, the agency decided to reverse its earlier denial and release nearly all the documents.
Sikorsky objected. Robert K. Huffman, a lawyer representing Sikorsky, argued in legal filings that the release of the information would cause the aircraft manufacturer "substantial competitive harm" and hurt the government's ability to obtain information from Sikorsky in the future.
On May 31, 2005, the agency decided that the records would be released but said Sikorsky's responses to them would remain confidential.
Sikorsky responded by filing a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the Pentagon to halt the release of the records. The Justice Department, in turn, recently asked Judge Richard W. Roberts to dismiss the case.
"The release of the documents is compelled by, and consistent with the goals of the FOIA," Justice Department lawyers wrote.
Cohn dismisses Sikorsky's concern about proprietary loss, saying it is a guise to hide possible mechanical problems that could be embarrassing to the company.
"We aren't talking about classified information here," said Cohn. "I can't for the life of me understand why the public doesn't have the right to this information. Our men and women have their lives on the line and we have every right to expect that the aircraft does not have faulty parts."
Open government advocates agree.
"Our experience has shown that companies are happiest when no information is shared," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, a non-partisan government watchdog group. "The threshold for releasing information under the Freedom of Information Act is high. If the Defense Department believes these records should be made public, then it raises questions about why the company wants to keep them secret."
John E. Pike, a defense expert and executive director of Virginia-based GlobalSecurity.org, said the case is unusual because it pits the right of Sikorsky to protect its company secrets against the public's right to know. "Seems to me that a balancing test is needed," Pike said.
Bud Grebey, vice president of communications and marketing at Sikorsky Aircraft, said he can't comment on the nature of Cohn's requests due to the pending litigation. But he did say that the helicopters are not released to the Pentagon unless all of the concerns in the inspection report are met.
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