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An End to Easy Access

Security concerns are superseding agencies' missions to provide useful information to the public.

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 Security concerns superseded agencies' missions to provide useful information to the public and to use Web access to provide quick and easy answers to questions that would otherwise need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 willing to provide legislative directives as well. At least 17 states have passed or considered terrorism exemptions in the past legislative session. In Missouri, state Sen. Roseann Bentley proposed an exemption for records of public utilities, indicating that "in light of the new security demands on our nation, and the threats that water plants and electrical plants may be targets, the utility should be able to keep the security precautions private. Our water system in Springfield is an open lake. I don't want to frighten people, but it's very susceptible to something being put in that water."

The problem with proposals like Bentley's are that they attempt to make secret something that is already public knowledge. The fact that Springfield draws its water supply from a nearby lake is already well known to Springfield residents and, probably, to many others as well.

In Ohio, the Emergency Management Agency sent an e-mail to state and local agencies indicating that officials should "remove any information from public access which could potentially be misused."

Such instructions have so far resulted in the closing of information about bridges and dams, the location of water mains and aerial photographs of government facilities. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took down information about locks and dams on the Ohio River. Corps spokesman Suzanne Fournier told the Cincinnati Enquirer, "We did that to protect the American public."

Cincinnati Metropolitan Sewer District Director Pat Karney defended removing information about a local chemical facility. He told reporters, "It was absolutely nuts. It seemed to be nothing more than a catalog for terrorists to go through."

One of the most controversial reversals of online access has been the EPA's decision not to make available "worst-case scenarios" for local chemical facilities. These documents discuss the consequences of a local disaster and have frequently been a focal point of the discussion of post-Sept. 11 decisions to take down information. However, Congress actually blocked EPA's plans to provide online access to such records nearly a year before Sept. 11 when the FBI suggested such records could be useful to terrorists. Congress put online access on hold while the issue was studied further.

How Much is Enough?

There is no doubt there is online information available that could be useful for terrorists. But such a broad standard for withholding information fails to take into account the possibility that much of the disputed information may have legitimate uses for others. Abraham Miller, an expert in terrorism at the University of Cincinnati, told the Enquirer, "It is better to err on the side of security. We do have a clear and present danger."

But critics on the other side of the issue disagree. Charles Davis, director of the University of Missouri's Freedom of Information Center, said, "There is so much deference to the security argument today. There's an assumption that secrecy guarantees security. That's where I get off the bus."

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va., made the case in her prefatory remarks to the Committee's publication, "Homefront Confidential: How the War on Terrorism Affects Access to Information and the Public's Right to Know." She said, "No one has demonstrated, however, that an ignorant society is a safe society. While some information logically should be withheld because it could pose a direct threat to American ground forces or tip off a terrorist that he is under surveillance, citizens are better able to protect themselves and take action when they know the dangers they are facing."

One clear result of Sept. 11 is that government Web sites will never be quite the same again. The rush to broad, cheap and rapid access to public information resources encouraged by the online revolution of the 1990s has now been temporarily stopped in its tracks by questions about how much access is too much.