Monday, March 11, 2002
Secrecy complaints increasing
Fear of terror versus freedom of information
By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The e-mails from the government began arriving in Cincinnati a few weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Be careful, the e-mails warned. Your business or agency might have information that terrorists want. Review your Web sites, computer files and public records.
Delete information that could be considered sensitive, one e-mail suggested.
In the six months since Sept. 11, those warnings have been heeded by state and federal officials across the country. Thousands of documents, maps, reports and photos are now off-limits to the public because of fears that terrorists might use them to plot more attacks.
The move to limit public access was initially embraced by most Americans as a necessary concession to national security.
But as the march toward greater secrecy continues, the debate over how to balance public safety with the public's right to know is growing louder.
In a free society, there's always a trade-off between freedom and security, says Abraham H. Miller, a University of Cincinnati professor who specializes in terrorism. Once you get a threat like Sept. 11, you look at realigning that balance.
So far, the impact of the new restrictions has been small. But it is spreading. Cincinnatians can no longer:
Read about how a catastrophe at a nearby chemical plant might affect them.
Peek at aerial photos of government facilities.
Find out if a water main runs past their homes.
Go online to study engineering innovations of bridges, military hardware or Ohio River dams.
Soon, it may be harder to learn what kind of toxins local industry dumps into sewers or what kind of taxpayer-funded research goes on at universities.
And if proposed laws are passed in Ohio and Kentucky, the public will be shut out of any government meeting related to security issues.
Supporters of the new restrictions say the moves make sense. For the most part, they say, such information would be more useful to terrorists than to the general public.
We're being more restrictive with our data, said Metropolitan Sewer District Director Pat Karney, who recently blocked access to information about a chemical storage site.
When you lay it out there so anyone with access to the Web can sit from any location in the world and pick out what might look good to them, that's crazy, Mr. Karney said.
But some think too much information is vanishing too quickly. They fear government and industry will exploit public fears and hide behind the veil of national security.
There is so much deference to the security argument today, said Charles Davis, director of the University of Missouri School of Journalism's Freedom of Information Center. ""People say we're just talking about maps of nuclear facilities.
No, we're not. We're talking about everything.
Many of the new restrictions are in response to formal requests from the government.
An e-mail in January from the Ohio Emergency Management Agency warned that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network may use public records available on the Internet to identify targets.
Officials should ... remove any information from public access which could potentially be misused, the e-mail stated.
The request and others like it prompted massive internal reviews of public records. Some agencies shut down Web sites immediately.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, the National Archives and the Department of Energy stripped Web sites of information deemed too sensitive.
The restricted information includes a report on lax security at chemical plants, research on liquified gas, maps of transportation networks and lists of toxins used at industrial sites.
More recently, the Army Corps of Engineers blocked access to diagrams of locks and dams along the Ohio River. Engineers and students used to go online to study the diagrams, but after Sept. 11 the corps feared terrorists might do the same.
We did that to protect the American public, said Corps spokeswoman Suzanne Fournier.
The same concerns prompted the EPA to drop a rule that required chemical sites to publicly describe a worst-case scenario on their property.
The purpose was to show residents near the site how a disaster might affect them. But some officials feared terrorists would use the data as a guide to vulnerable targets.
It was absolutely nuts, Mr. Karney said. It seemed to be nothing more than a catalog for terrorists to go through.
A need to know
While few challenge the need to conceal schematic drawings of nuclear facilities, other moves toward secrecy have met with resistance.
Officials in several states, including Kentucky and Ohio, have proposed laws that would allow elected officials to meet in private for security reasons.
Others want to tighten open records laws that allow journalists and advocacy groups to obtain documents about everything from nuclear safety to the kind of toxins companies dump into sewers.
We're going to be more circumspect in releasing that stuff, Mr. Karney said. If I've got a choice between a lawsuit and a terrorist act, I'll take the lawsuit every time.
Critics say the public's need to know about environmental threats is far greater than any potential terrorist threat.
That kind of data does not present any kind of threat, except perhaps to the polluters who have to come clean about what kind of toxins they are exposing the public to, said Glen Brand, spokesman for the Sierra Club in Cincinnati.
For Mr. Brand and other critics, the talk of closing public meetings and sealing once-public documents is disturbing. They see too many opportunities for abuse.
It's very arbitrary, said Cincinnati attorney Stan Chesley, who has fought several legal battles against industry and government contractors. Secrecy under the guise of homeland security can be used by corporations as a means of covering up.
He said he encountered that kind of resistance in the 1980s during his legal battle with the government over health problems at the Fernald uranium processing plant north of Cincinnati.
My past experience tells me they will put things under a veil to protect themselves, Mr. Chesley said.
A clear danger
The Freedom of Information Center's Mr. Davis compares the recent push for secrecy to The Perfect Storm, the story of how several unusual weather patterns suddenly collided to create a brutal storm.
In this case, he said, conditions are perfect for greater secrecy because the Bush administration embraces the new restrictions, the terrorist threat is real and the public is willing to surrender its rights.
That combination has emboldened government to keep unprecedented amounts of information under wraps, Mr. Davis said.
It terrifies me, he said.
Even some universities, which usually encourage the free exchange of information, are limiting access.
Ohio State officials are reviewing the school's Web pages to determine if anything is too sensitive for public consumption. It's a difficult task.
This is an educational institution, said OSU spokeswoman Amy Murray. The free exchange of ideas is important in everything we do.
Already, some researchers are finding that their jobs are more difficult in such a security-conscious age.
Bill Krantz, director of Membrane Applied Science and Technology at UC, recently sought information from the Army for research his students were doing on protective clothing.
Before Sept. 11, the request might have taken a few weeks to process. This time, it took almost three months.
It's incredible how this is impacting us, Mr. Krantz said. We're not quite prepared to deal with the changes in the way we handle research and intellectual property.
Mr. Miller, the terrorism expert, said Americans should get used to living with more secrecy.
It is better to err on the side of security, he said. We do have a clear and present danger.
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