white house web scrubbing
Winston Smith would feel at home in the White house
White House Web Scrubbing
Offending Comments on Iraq Disappear From Site
By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 18, 2003; Page A05
It's not quite Soviet-style airbrushing, but the Bush administration has been using cyberspace to make some of its own cosmetic touch-ups to history.
White House officials were steamed when Andrew S. Natsios, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said earlier this year that U.S. taxpayers would not have to pay more than $1.7 billion to reconstruct Iraq -- which turned out to be a gross understatement of the tens of billions of dollars the government now expects to spend.
Recently, however, the government has purged the offending comments by Natsios from the agency's Web site. The transcript, and links to it, have vanished.
This is not the first time the administration has done some creative editing of government Web sites. After the insurrection in Iraq proved more stubborn than expected, the White House edited the original headline on its Web site of President Bush's May 1 speech, "President Bush Announces Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended," to insert the word "Major" before combat.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, administration Web sites have been scrubbed for anything vaguely sensitive, and passwords are now required to access even much unclassified information. Though it is not clear whether the White House is directing the changes, several agencies have been following a similar pattern. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and USAID have removed or revised fact sheets on condoms, excising information about their effectiveness in disease prevention, and promoting abstinence instead. The National Cancer Institute, meanwhile, scrapped claims on its Web site that there was no association between abortion and breast cancer. And the Justice Department recently redacted criticism of the department in a consultant's report that had been posted on its Web site.
Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said the Natsios case is particularly pernicious. "This smells like an attempt to revise the record, not just to withhold information but to alter the historical record in a self-interested way, and that is sleazier than usual," he said. "If they simply said, 'We made an error; we underestimated,' people could understand it and deal with it."
For months after the April 23 Natsios interview on ABC's "Nightline," USAID.gov displayed the transcript. "You're not suggesting that the rebuilding of Iraq is going to be done for $1.7 billion?" an incredulous Ted Koppel asked Natsios.
"Well, in terms of the American taxpayers contribution, I do," Natsios said. "This is it for the U.S. The rest of the rebuilding of Iraq will be done by other countries who have already made pledges, Britain, Germany, Norway, Japan, Canada and Iraqi oil revenues. . . . But the American part of this will be $1.7 billion. We have no plans for any further-on funding for this."
A White House spokesman, asked later about these remarks, responded vaguely that he had not seen the statement in question. Then, sometime this fall, USAID made it easier for the administration to maintain its veil of ignorance on the subject by taking the transcript off its Web site.
For a while, the agency left telltale evidence by keeping the link to the transcript on its "What's New" page -- but yesterday the liberal Center for American Progress discovered that this link had disappeared, too, as well as the Google "cached" copies of the original page.
USAID spokeswoman Lejaune Hall, asked about this curious situation, searched the Web site herself for the missing document. "That is strange," she said. After a brief investigation, she reported back: "They were taken down off the Web site. There was going to be a cost. That's why they're not there."
But other government Web sites, including the State and Defense departments, routinely post interview transcripts, even from "Nightline." And, it turns out, there is no cost. "We would not charge for that," said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. "We would have no trouble with a government agency linking to one of our interviews, and we are unaware of anybody from [ABC] making any request that anything be removed."
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BUSH ADMINISTRATION SCRUBS THE WEB
The Bush Administration has repeatedly altered government web sites
to eliminate items that it considers politically or ideologically
In a gem of a news story, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post
reported that the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID)
had deleted the transcript of an ABC Nightline interview with AID
administrator Andrew S. Natsios last April in which he said the
reconstruction of Iraq would cost taxpayers no more than $1.7
billion, a gross underestimate.
See "White House Web Scrubbing," Washington Post, December 18:
AID officials told the Post that the page was removed because ABC
News was going to charge for it.
But the exemplary Milbank contacted ABC News, which said that
A copy of the web page containing the Natsios interview that was
deleted from the US AID web site is here:
Other instances of "political" modifications to official web sites
were cited recently in the House Government Reform Minority report
on "Politics and Science in the Bush Administration" available
DOD INSPECTOR GENERAL TO CURTAIL WEB-BASED INFO
The Defense Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) has
adopted a new policy that would sharply limit the types of
information that may be posted on its web site, Defense Week
Not only will classified information be banned from the web, as
always, but so will all other information that has not been
"specifically approved for public release," as well as
"information that is of questionable value to the general public."
The draconian new policy was first described in "Pentagon IG Sets
New Policy on Web Information" by John M. Donnelly, Defense Week
Daily Update, December 18, reposted with permission here:
A copy of the new OIG policy statement, dated December 5, is posted
In one sense, all of the Inspector General's publications are "of
questionable value to the general public." Few members of the
general public are likely to read the OIG's detailed audit
reports. But they are often of great value to the press and
public interest organizations that specialize in defense policy.
Whether the OIG realizes it or not, the new policy could damage its
own interests first and foremost. That is because the OIG derives
much of its influence and authority from the fact that its
findings are published and made widely available. Without the
leverage offered by publication, the OIG investigative and
oversight function will only be weakened.
COURTS REBUFFS BUSH ON DETAINEES
The President does not have the legal authority to unilaterally
detain an American citizen in the United States as an "enemy
combatant," a federal appeals court ruled yesterday, in a
significant rebuke to the Bush Administration arising from the
case of suspected terrorist Jose Padilla.
"Padilla's detention was not authorized by Congress, and absent
such authorization, the President does not have the power under
Article II of the Constitution to detain as an enemy combatant an
American citizen seized on American soil outside a zone of
combat," the second circuit court of appeals ruled. See:
The Justice Department said it would appeal the decision. See:
Another appeals court ruling concluded that detainees held under
American jurisdiction in Guantanamo have a legal right to
challenge the basis for their detention.
"Even in times of national emergency--indeed, particularly in such
times--it is the obligation of the Judicial Branch to ensure the
preservation of our constitutional values and to prevent the
Executive Branch from running roughshod over the rights of
citizens and aliens alike," the ninth circuit court of appeals
"Here, we simply cannot accept the government's position that the
Executive Branch possesses the unchecked authority to imprison
indefinitely any persons, foreign citizens included, on territory
under the sole jurisdiction and control of the United States,
without permitting such prisoners recourse of any kind to any
judicial forum, or even access to counsel, regardless of the
length or manner of their confinement." See:
A Justice Department statement in response is posted here:
CRS ON DETAINEES AND THE LAW
The Congressional Research Service has prepared a number of
informative reports pertaining to the legal status of detainees in
the war on terrorism, including these:
"Treatment of 'Battlefield Detainees' in the War on Terrorism" by
Jennifer Elsea, April 11, 2002:
"Military Tribunals: The Quirin Precedent" by Louis Fisher, March
"Terrorism and the Law of War: Trying Terrorists as War Criminals
before Military Commissions" by Jennifer Elsea, December 11, 2001:
As may have been previously mentioned, direct public access to
these and other CRS reports is not authorized by Congress.
NEW PRESIDENTIAL DIRECTIVES ON HOMELAND SECURITY
President Bush issued two new "homeland security presidential
directives" (HSPDs) this week that would provide a framework for
protecting critical infrastructure from terrorist attack and
improving emergency preparedness.
HSPD-7 on "Critical Infrastructure Identification, Prioritization,
and Protection" is posted here:
HSPD-8 on "National Preparedness" is available here:
The premise of the new directives is that "Terrorists seek to
destroy, incapacitate, or exploit critical infrastructure and key
resources across the United States to threaten national security,
cause mass casualties, weaken our economy, and damage public
morale and confidence."
It is noteworthy that the threat which propels this and other Bush
Administration policies is "terrorism," a nearly metaphysical
entity, not an identifiable terrorist organization with defined
capabilities and intentions that could be countered or defeated.
Democratic members of Congress criticized the Bush Administration
for not proceeding far enough, fast enough to combat the asserted
threat to homeland security.
SECRET SERVICE AIRBRUSHES AERIAL PHOTOS
Aerial imagery of selected government buildings that is made
publicly available by the U.S. Geological Survey is being
electronically distorted at the request of the U.S. Secret
Service. The USGS imagery is widely used by MapQuest and other
Images of the White House and the Congress, but not the Supreme
Court, have been modified to obscure details that could previously
The story was reported in "Secret Service airbrushes aerial
photos" by Kevin Poulsen, SecurityFocus.com, December 17:
Before and after photos of the modified images were presented by
John Young of Cryptome.org here:
AAAS ON SCIENCE AND SECURITY
Science and national security in the post-9/11 environment is the
urgent subject of a new web site presented by the American
Association for the Advancement of Science.
"The site provides a contact page for individuals to report ways in
which they or their colleagues have been affected by post-9/11
security policies. It also provides overviews of five major
security-related issues facing the scientific community and links
to related projects at other organizations," according to project
director David G. Cooper. See:
DOJ ON FOIA EXEMPTION 3
Exemption 3 of the Freedom of Information Act permits federal
agencies to withhold information that has been specifically
exempted from disclosure in another statute.
Last year, agencies invoked nearly 125 such statutes to withhold
information under FOIA exemption 3, according to a new report of
the Justice Department's Office of Information and Privacy.
See "Agencies Rely on Wide Range of Exemption 3 Statutes," December
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