Tight Security at Oil Spill Hearing in New Orleans

BY Tom Bearden  May 11, 2010 at 6:33 PM EDT

The U.S. Coast Guard and the federal Minerals Management Service staged the first of two public hearings at the Radisson airport hotel in New Orleans Tuesday, as part of a joint investigation into the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig last month.

It may have been public, but it certainly wasn’t very open.

The first barrier was a cluster of armed security guards wearing black shirts emblazoned with “Black Hawk Protective Services.” They were intensely “protective” when it came to reporters and cameramen, declaring loudly that it was forbidden to take pictures, video, or interview anyone in the immediate vicinity of the hearing room — or even in the hotel itself. When asked who had employed their firm, one replied with a perfectly straight face that he was “not authorized to disclose that information.”

While the hearing was going on, one guard occupied himself by marching up and down the lobby. He called it “walking his post.”

The Coast Guard had required members of the media to register yesterday if they wished to attend the hearing. The Black Hawk guards carefully examined credentials and compared them to their list of “authorized” news media representatives. But when about 200 more people showed up for the hearing, they were allowed inside without further ado. That included a man and woman who staged a brief protest at the start of the meeting, unfurling banners. One wonders why the press alone needed such careful screening.

That was later echoed by two U.S. Coast Guard officers who further declared that the members of the panel, witnesses, and any survivors or family members were also off limits. One officer seemed dismayed when this reporter questioned the U.S. Coast Guard’s authority to issue such restrictions in a supposedly free country.