The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 accelerated a trend that was beginning to develop in the world of public information. Concerns about the misuse of public information for planning terrorist attacks took center stage as federal, state and local agencies began to strip from Web sites information deemed too dangerous for public consumption. Security concerns superseded agencies' missions to provide useful information to the public and to use Web access to provide quick and easy answers to questions that would otherwise need to be fielded by agency personnel.

The online revolution of the previous decade made online access to public information the model of choice among government agencies that had the technical resources and expertise to take advantage of the Internet. Moving from a reactive model of providing information in response to freedom of information requests or public affairs queries, government adopted a proactive model that allowed individuals rapid access to considerably more information than had been previously available. The model also encouraged a greater sense of interactive government where Web site access could provide clear and easy answers to questions about many government services and requirements. A significant benefit, from an agency's point of view, was that Web site access deflected the need for individuals to contact the agency directly for answers to basic questions.

Information Renewal

That model still exists, but its breadth was changed radically by the Sept. 11 attacks. Agencies continue to re-assess their online dissemination policies and to remove more information. A March memo from White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card instructed agencies to conduct "an immediate reexamination" of current measures to protect information about weapons of mass destruction. Although this memo was partly driven by reports that scientific papers providing information about how to make certain kinds of biological weapons were available through agency Web sites, it served a larger purpose as well. Card pointed out that weapons of mass destruction include "other information that could be misused to harm the security of our nation and safety of our people."

A memo containing guidance, attached to Card's memo, suggested agencies review the status of classified information. That memo created a category for "sensitive, but unclassified" information and explained, "The need to protect such sensitive information from inappropriate disclosure should be carefully considered, on a case-by-case basis."

OMB Watch, a public interest group in Washington, D.C., has been the most vocal critic of government's movement toward dismantling online public access. The group has kept a running tally of such incidents on its Web site. Among those agencies that have either permanently or temporarily taken information off their Web sites are the Department of Energy, NASA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Archives. The Archives posted an explanation on its Web site saying, "In light of the terrorist events of Sept. 11, we are re-evaluating access to some previously open archival materials .... NARA seeks to reduce the risk of providing access to materials that might support terrorist activity."

The states frequently follow the federal government's lead. In New York, a confidential memo prepared by James Kallstrom, director of the Office of Public Security, ordered agencies to review their holdings for "sensitive" information and to ensure that such information was not made public except where required by law. Kallstrom told the New York Times, "The intent, clearly, is to remove from the public Web sites that information that serves no other purpose than to equip potential terrorists. This is not an attempt just to shield legitimate information from the public." He added, "There is still a disconcerting amount of potentially compromising information still publicly accessible."

Legislative Directive

While many agencies are taking information off line on their own initiative, state legislators have been more than

Harry Hammitt  |  Contributing Writer