access denied: scrubbing the net
its not terrorists the scrubbers fear, its us.
The latest Internet buzzword is "scrubbing": removing information from Web sites that some believe could conceivably aid terrorists in planning attacks on the United States.
And the federal government, joined by some private groups, is moving on a broad front to restrict this kind of data.
In recent weeks, for instance, information on toxic waste spills and various databases normally supplied online by the Federal Aviation Agency have disappeared, and the entire Nuclear Regulatory Commission Web site has been shut down temporarily. At the same time, the government is pre-empting public access to satellite imagery and urging federal contractors to be careful about disclosing war-related information in press releases and on their Web sites. The activity has drawn fire from journalists as well as some public-interest lobbying groups.
Though some restrictions are in order, these groups say, in some cases the activity is either an overreaction or suppression of information the government has been uncomfortable about supplying in the past. And earlier this month, the leaders of 21 journalism groups, including Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc., issued a joint letter that said the restrictions pose dangers to American democracy.
Steven Astergood, director of the Government Secrecy Project at the Federation of American Scientists, agreed. "The administration is doing an imperfect job of distinguishing between what's sensitive and what's not," he said. "Some of this is futile and reflects a lack of understanding of today's information environment."
Astergood's own group has removed information from its Web site, however, primarily data listing the location of secure intelligence facilities that can't be found elsewhere. Other experts say the moves are justified in the current crisis.
"The hard part is, you don't know what's important to keep away from the terrorists, because you don't know what they're missing," said retired Maj. Gen. William Nash, currently with the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. "As you work this issue, you'll find that the intelligence and counterintelligence people have to be cautious about a lot more than they could rationally argue with you."
One consultant who has advised the federal government on secrecy and military affairs says that many of the changes are long overdue. He points out that the Pentagon began scrubbing its Web sites several years ago and removed such obvious problems as interactive tours of military bases. "There was a lot of enthusiasm for the Internet that got completely out of hand," he said. "It's one thing to say that information should be public in a reading room, for example, but should we really make it convenient for anyone anywhere in the world to look it up with a search engine? A lot of people seem to think that anything that can be put online, should be put online."
In some cases, the new government secrecy has upset carefully crafted compromises between public access and public safety. Gary Bass, who is executive director of OMB Watch, a public-interest watchdog that pays special attention to the White House Office of Management and Budget, said Congress required companies a few years ago to submit information about potential toxic waste spills, including the potential and geographic range of deaths and injuries in "worst case scenarios," so that emergency services squads and local residents could plan accordingly.
After wrangling among Congress, the Justice Department, the chemical industry and public interest groups, it was agreed that some of the information would be available openly on the Internet, while some would be available only in restricted reading rooms where, to deter terrorists, the identities of people requesting the information could be monitored.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, however, the EPA has removed all information from sites that provide information about hazardous materials, and chemical accidents, even though the FBI and Justice Department previously approved the postings, Bass said.
His group has added a Web page that lists most of the major deletions at www.OMBwatch.org.
Besides the NRC and risk-management data, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry dropped from its Web site a report on chemical site security and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency stopped selling large-scale digital maps.
In some cases, it's hard to figure out what public purpose is being served. For instance, the Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety, which maintains the National Pipeline Mapping System, has shut down the service. "Recent events have focused additional security concerns on critical infrastructure systems," a message reads at the DOT site. "Due to these concerns, OPS no longer provides unlimited access to the Internet mapping application, pipeline data and drinking water" data that is unusually sensitive.
However, a detailed map of a potential target, the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline, is available at an Alaska state government site. The multi-screen map shows the precise route, the location of oil pumping stations, nearby airfields and other information.
And the Internal Revenue Service, which has for years fought to keep its inner workings secret, now bans unescorted public access to the reading rooms that Congress required it to set up. The material in question contains tax information and regulations and would appear to be of no use to a terrorist.
Some states have gotten into the act, with Pennsylvania removing certain data on toxic wastes and Florida withholding certain driver's license data, as well as information on crop dusters.
In the case of satellite photos from Space Imaging, a satellite photo company, the government hasn't pulled the plug altogether, but has come close. Normally, the Commerce Department could simply order "shutter control," which is a blackout that blocks information from and about locations at certain coordinates, according to Tim Brown, an analyst at GlobalSecurity.org. Instead, the Pentagon has contracted with the privately owned company for exclusive rights to the photos and is paying a premium for "real time" shots.
That means private groups, including news organizations, will have to wait perhaps more than a month to get images from the same location, said officials with that company.
Brown said he was looking forward to news organizations' making available satellite imaging that pictures an area as small as one meter that would become the "news camera" in orbit. "But," he added, "we've all been disappointed by what's turned out." GlobalSecurity has, on its Web site, stunning photos of terrorist camps in Afghanistan that were taken before the current crises erupted, but Brown is frustrated he can't get updates of the shots since the United States started its bombing campaign.
Even as individual agencies have cut down on the flow of data, the Bush administration appears to be moving toward a tighter interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act, which mandates public disclosure of much of the government's business. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memo on Oct. 12 urging federal agencies to exercise greater caution in disclosing information requested under that act.
The memo affirms the Justice Department's commitment to "full compliance with the Freedom of Information Act" but adds it is "equally committed to protecting other fundamental values that are held by our society. Among them are safeguarding our national security, enhancing the effectiveness of our law enforcement agencies, protecting sensitive business information and, not least, preserving personal privacy."
Ashcroft also promised support: "When you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records, in whole or in part, you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions unless they lack a sound legal basis ... "
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