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<-- Return To Right to Know or Left to Wonder?

Source: Washington Times.

Web sites told to delete data

By Bill Sammon
March 21, 2002

The White House yesterday ordered all federal agencies to scrub their Web sites of sensitive information on weapons of mass destruction and other data that might be useful to terrorists, The Washington Times has learned.

The move alarmed scientists and open-records advocates because the government is withdrawing thousands of documents that have been available to the public for years.

Late yesterday afternoon, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card sent a memo to the heads of all agencies and executive departments ordering an "immediate re-examination" of all public documents.

The officials were told to report their findings within 90 days to the Office of Homeland Security.

"You and your department or agency have an obligation to safeguard government records regarding weapons of mass destruction," Mr. Card wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.


"Government information, regardless of its age, that could reasonably be expected to assist in the development or use of weapons of mass destruction, including information about the current locations of stockpiles of nuclear materials that could be exploited for use in such weapons, should not be disclosed inappropriately," he wrote.

But the review goes much further than withdrawing documents on weapons of mass destruction that should have been classified in the first place.

It also includes "sensitive but unclassified information," according to a second memo to agency heads, which was drafted by secrecy officials at the White House and Justice Department.

"The need to protect such sensitive information from inappropriate disclosure should be carefully considered, on a case-by-case basis," said the memo, which was also obtained by The Times.

The memo � which was written by Laura L.S. Kimberly, acting director of the Information Security Oversight Office, as well as Richard L. Huff and Daniel J. Metcalfe, co-directors of the Justice Department's Office of Information and Privacy � told agencies to also consider "the benefits that result from the open and efficient exchange of scientific, technical, and like information."

But some scientific groups were not satisfied by this caveat.

"A concern about terrorism can be used as a pretext for withdrawing all kinds of information that has little or no national security sensitivity," said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. "And that is something we see happening all over the place."

Senior White House officials insisted they have listened to the concerns of scientists and others. But they said that the terrorist attacks of September 11 have forced the administration to strike a more cautious balance between openness and secrecy.

"We're very mindful of not overstepping," said one official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "All of us use the word 'balance,' and the point of the debate is how we define that. But we think we have hit it right."

Another White House official said the administration's review of sensitive information is based on the expectation "that good judgment be applied and that [information] not just be withdrawn wholesale."

The officials gave several hypothetical examples of information that would be withdrawn from public access. These include:

  • Documents on "dual use" nuclear materials, such as spent fuel rods from electric power plants, that could be helpful in converting those materials to weapons.

  • Information on heating and air conditioning systems that might help terrorists spread anthrax through public buildings.

  • Computer maintenance data that might aid hackers in stopping the disbursement of Social Security checks.


"There was information that was on different Web sites that was actually being made available for sale that really shouldn't have been out there," one official said.

"For instance, there was a classified report that was generated in the '50s, and declassified in the '70s, that talked about how to build a biotoxin factory, and of course that was removed," the source added. "Information that points to specific vulnerabilities at nuclear power-plant reactors or subway stations, for instance, would also be removed."

Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, which advocates greater access to government information, said there is nothing wrong with protecting national security. But he questioned the lockdown of "sensitive but unclassified" data.

"I'm overwhelmed," he said when told of the White House memos. "Nothing I'm familiar with in the law allows the executive branch to create a whole new category called 'sensitive but unclassified.'"

Mr. Bass said he was "troubled" by the administration's "precipitous" steps toward government secrecy in the wake of September 11.

"There's an erosion that's occurring to our basic framework of openness," he said. "We are moving very rapidly to a shift from basic democratic principles of right-to-know to one that is based on a need to know.

"That will have major, major reverberations for our democratic processes," he said. "It will mean that the judgment is placed on the government to determine whether you do have a need to know. And you have to justify it each and every time."

Mr. Aftergood said the government has already pulled more than 6,000 documents from Web sites, including some that have no national security implications. For example, the Pentagon has withdrawn evaluation reports on procurement programs.

"This is not something that a terrorist could use in any way," he said. "But it is enormously useful for both congressional and public oversight of many large programs."

Mr. Aftergood called the "sensitive but unclassified" category "worrisome."

"It's potentially a catchall and it could be an invitation to abuse," he said.

"Because it is not defined, it could be used to justify the withholding of almost anything," he said. "If it is left to the discretion of the individual agencies, they will abuse that discretion."

The White House disagreed.

"We're asking for agencies to use a certain amount of judgment; we think that's what Americans would want," one official said. "All of these competing concerns have to be weighed very carefully.

"But there's a wholesale recognition that we need to take another look at how this kind of information's being handled, so it's done appropriately," the official added.

<-- Return To Right to Know or Left to Wonder?

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