Army could keep shipwreck information public if new amendment passes

As members of the House of Representatives debate the details of their latest National Defense Authorization Bill (NDAA), a possible addition has seemingly come out of left field, or perhaps 20,000 leagues. This could alter public access to information about sunken military ships and aircraft. The amendment, proposed by Rep. Austin Scott, a Republican from Georgia, was reportedly motivated by illegal salvage operations that occur at these sites.

Developed under the oversight of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House Armed Services Committee, the NDAA is an annual bill that both authorizes funding for defense programs and includes provisions for other defense policy initiatives. Amendments to the NDAA are drafted by representatives throughout the NDAA drafting process and explain the changes they would like to see applied to the bill before it becomes law. It is through this annual bill and various other annual defense appropriation bills that the US Congress is granted the ability to oversee the implementation of the Department of Defense budget.

This year, Rep. Scott’s amendment is certainly one of the most intriguing among the group and it is also important to note that at this time the House Armed Services Committee has yet to vote on whether to include this amendment in the latest draft NDAA. .

“This amendment would allow service secretaries to withhold information from the public about the location of sunken military ships and aircraft,” reads the summary of the amendment. “Scrapers File FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests to obtain the locations of sunken ships in order to extract steel for its scrap value. At the same time, the actual language reads, in part:

“… The Secretary concerned may refuse to release to the public information and data concerning the location or character of any sunken military device under his jurisdiction, if such disclosure increases the risk of unauthorized disturbance of one or several military devices sunk.”

Screenshot of Austin Scott’s amendment to the NDAA.

If Rep. Scott’s amendment is to become part of the final draft of the NDAA, the accessibility of official information regarding accidents and wrecks involving military equipment could become significantly restricted. Since few details are currently available outside of the amendment itself, The war zone reached out to rep Scott to see if he could add some additional color to the situation. His office responded by email.

“There has been a shameful increase in the illegal salvage of sunken military ships and aircraft during World War II for scrap metal,” Rep. Scott’s statement read. “My amendment allows the DOD to withhold the location of sunken military devices from individuals who wish to use that information to desecrate war graves.”

The language’s emphasis also appears to include the retention of data that would reveal specific features of the wreckage, not just its location.

Photo of the sunken World War II aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2). US Navy

How the Pentagon would determine whether or not disclosing details of a wreckage would increase the risk of ‘unauthorized interference’ is unclear, but it’s possible the vague guidelines could lead to broadly discriminatory access to information. public. While it is absolutely important to rest in peace those who perished aboard military ships and aircraft, the language does not specifically refer to wreckage containing remains. Limiting information about the loss of military aircraft and ships at sea could also hamper the public’s ability to understand the nature of their loss. It could be argued that the amendment could allow the Pentagon to say less about an incident than it would otherwise, regardless of the validity of such a decision.

On the contrary, it is worth mentioning that the Ministry of Defense could perhaps better combat illegal salvage operations if it only clarified some of the existing peripheral regulations.

Although there are already a number of laws and standards regarding treasure hunting and other rescue operations in international waters, efforts to exert control over these activities can often be a gray area. Some examples of these laws include the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which provides general best practice for underwater excavations, and the Maritime Salvage Law, which dictates how anyone helps to recover another party’s vessel is entitled to a level of compensation. There are also customary international laws, such as the principle of sovereign immunity, which can further complicate the issue of who exactly has complete sovereignty over the waters where wrecks might be present.

Photo of a sunken Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat. US Navy

Salvage disputes and scavenger hunt charges have certainly been issues the US military has faced in the past. In 2014, illegal salvage operations reportedly took place at the 78-year-old wreck site of the USS. Houston, a United States Navy ship that was sunk in the South Pacific by the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II. In 2017, it was revealed that the unmarked graves of thousands of sailors and a number of warships, including those belonging to the United States, had been illegally looted by salvage divers. While these examples are undoubtedly distressing, they at the very least prove that Scott’s amendment, or at least its stated intent, is not without merit.

A vote on the committee’s final draft of the National Defense Authorization Act and its approved amendments will likely take place tonight or early tomorrow morning. A few weeks later, after negotiations in the House and Senate, the final congressional draft could be voted on this fall. At the moment, The war zone will let you know whether or not Rep. Scott’s amendment has been retained.

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