Letter to Shredder

In the summer of 1987, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North testified before the U.S. Senate that he once spent an entire evening shredding top-secret cables and other covert documents concerning the Iran-contra matter while Justice Department investigators worked 10 feet away.

Since then, the word "shredding" has reasonably become dark code for deceit—almost always found in close proximity to the words "conspiracy," "illegal" and "cover-up." No one, we thought—especially someone working on behalf of the public—would ever use that word to describe official policy.

We thought wrong. Consider the following excerpt from a county memo, courtesy of a public-records request by the South County cities opposed to the airport:

"After discussions with the county over the past two days, the county has asked us to reorganize the discussions of alternatives in Technical Report 1 [TR1]," chief consultant Ron Ahlfeldt wrote to the county's remaining consultants on Sept. 12, 1997. "The county has asked that you return your copy of TR1 to us for shredding to maintain confidentiality."

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Why was the county so eager to destroy evidence of TR1? Because TR1 put the lie to the county's claim that the runways at El Toro International Airport would remain exactly as they were when the Marines ran the place.

TR1 documented the county's dawning realization that the Marine Corps runways could never support international air traffic: they directed airplanes uphill with a tailwind into foothills; they ran dangerously across one another in an old-fashioned plus-sign, rather than parallel to one another; and they weren't nearly thick enough for the heavy pounding they'd take from fully loaded international passenger aircraft. The solutions outlined in TR1 would cost billions of dollars and direct planes over the heart of Orange County every two minutes, 24 hours per day.

Weighing the loss in public support that would come from such a disclosure, officials ordered TR1 shredded.

Now match this naked contempt for the people who will have to live near and use the proposed airport with the county's own "Public Information Program," begun in August 1998. That program's chief goal was to "explain issues related to noise, safety, traffic, air quality and economic impacts in a clear, simple and [here's the key word] accurate manner."

It's a wonder residents still trust the county to do anything anymore.

—Anthony Pignataro

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