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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Rising Fears That What We Do Know Can Hurt Us

November 18, 2001|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The document seemed innocuous enough: a survey of government data on reservoirs and dams on CD-ROM. But then came last month's federal directive to U.S. libraries: "Destroy the report."

So a Syracuse University library clerk broke the disc into pieces, saving a single shard to prove that the deed was done.

The unusual order from the Government Printing Office reflects one of the hidden casualties of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: the public's shrinking access to information that many once took for granted.

Want to find out whether there are any hazardous waste sites near the local day-care center? What safety controls are in place at nuclear power plants? Or how many people are incarcerated in terrorist-related probes?

Since Sept. 11, it has become much harder to get such information from the federal government, a growing number of states and public libraries as heightened concern about national security has often trumped the public's "right to know:"

* At least 15 federal agencies have yanked potentially sensitive information off the Internet, or removed Web sites altogether, for fear that terrorists could exploit the government data. The excised material ranges from information on chemical reactors and risk-management programs to airport data and mapping of oil pipelines.

* Several states have followed the federal government's lead. California, for example, has removed information on dams and aqueducts, state officials said.

* Members of the public who want to use reading rooms at federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service must now make an appointment and be escorted by an employee to ensure that information is not misused.

* The Government Printing Office has begun ordering about 1,300 libraries nationwide that serve as federal depositories to destroy government records that federal agencies say could be too sensitive for public consumption.

* Federal agencies are imposing a stricter standard in reviewing hundreds of thousands of Freedom of Information Act requests from the public each year; officials no longer have to show that disclosure would cause "substantial harm" before rejecting a request. Watchdog groups say they have already started to see rejections of requests that likely would have been granted before.

The trend reverses a decades-long shift toward greater public access to information, even highly sensitive documents such as the Pentagon Papers or unconventional manifestos such as "The Anarchist's Cookbook," a compilation of recipes for making bombs. The popularity of the Internet has made sensitive information even easier to come by in recent years, but the events of Sept. 11 are now fueling a new debate in Washington: How much do Americans need to know?

Attacks Place Internet Content in New Light

The swinging of the pendulum away from open records, supporters of the trend say, is a necessary safeguard against terrorists who could use sensitive public information to attack airports, water treatment plants, nuclear reactors and more.

In an Oct. 12 memo announcing the new Freedom of Information Act policies, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said that, while "a well-informed citizenry" is essential to government accountability, national security should be a priority.

"The tragic events of Sept. 11 have compelled us to carefully review all of the information we make available to the public over the Internet in a new light," Elaine Stanley, an Environmental Protection Agency official, told a House subcommittee earlier this month.

But academicians, public interest groups, media representatives and others warn of an overreaction.

"Do you pull all the Rand McNally atlases from the libraries? I mean, how far do you go?" asked Julia Wallace, head of the government publications library at the University of Minnesota.

"I'm certainly worried by what I've seen," said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit group in Washington that monitors the Office of Management and Budget and advocates greater access to government data on environmental and other issues.

"In an open society such as ours, you always run the risk that someone is going to use information in a bad way," Bass said. "You have to take every step to minimize those risks without undermining our democratic principles. You can't just shut down the flow of information."

It's a fine line acknowledged by Stanley. "[The] EPA is aware that we need a balance between protecting sensitive information in the interest of national security and maintaining access to the information that citizens can use to protect their health and the environment in their communities."

The Sept. 11 hijackers, using readily accessible tools like box cutters, the Internet and Boeing flight manuals, hatched a plot too brazen for many to fathom. It forced authorities to consider whether a range of public sites and sensitive facilities was much more vulnerable than they had realized--and whether public records could provide a playbook for targeting them.

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