Information required to be kept secret for the purposes of prevention of terrorism at UK airports is exempt from disclosure under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2000. Such was the decision in a recent case heard by the Information Tribunal.
The 1982 Aviation Security Act allows the Secretary of State to issue a direction in writing to any UK airport or any aircraft operator in the UK to conduct searches in order to counter the threat of terrorist attacks. Any such directions, by their nature, are only issued on a need-to-know basis and are therefore not in the public domain.
A complaint was made by a Mr Kalman, who was a regular flyer from Heathrow to Tel Aviv, travelling with El Al. He was concerned that El Al passengers were being segregated at the central search area in Heathrow and were directed to a separate search channel. In 2006, he found that passengers were being asked to remove their shoes for inspection. He later wrote a letter requesting information from the Department for Transport regarding the searching procedures and was told that it could not be disclosed.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) contains a national security exemption in Section 24. The exemption is, however, qualified, in that even if exemption is required, the information can still be ordered to be disclosed in the public interest.
It was Mr Kalman’s case that the Department for Transport had overstated the case for national security. The security procedures, he argued, were visible to the public at Heathrow and were known by many airport employees. Furthermore, it was stated that none of t
he documents in question were marked ‘restricted’ or ‘confidential’.
However, the tribunal decided that the directions were in effect restricted as they were only sent to named individuals on a need-to-know basis and were sent with a covering later stating the contents were sensitive or restricted.
The tribunal allowed the appeal in part, ordering the disclosure of some of the information requested that was not considered sufficiently sensitive to qualify for exemption under Section 24. However, the tribunal upheld the need to maintain non-disclosure of such security directions to airports on the grounds of national security.