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[] NYT 28.10.01: Government Clamps Down on Agency Web Sites,

October 28, 2001

Government Clamps Down on Agency Web Sites


WASHINGTON, Oct. 27 ? In the weeks since the terrorist attacks, government officials have been removing information from their agencies' Web sites on the Internet: the location and operating status of nuclear power plants, maps of the nation's transportation infrastructure and an array of other data suddenly deemed too sensitive for general consumption.

Their actions have touched off a difficult and growing debate about the balance between the public's right to know and the nation's heightened security needs in an era of terrorism.

Critics say the government is overreacting, restricting information needlessly and even removing information that would improve, not jeopardize, the public's safety, like details on environmental hazards that might be useful to local citizens. 

"It's a balancing act," said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a watchdog group that tries to increase the accessibility of government information, particularly on the environment. "I don't want to pretend that there's some bright line you can draw and say, `ah-ha, this is something that needs to be taken down, or kept up.' But in a democracy, you always need to err on the side of public information and the right to know."

Yet government officials say they are reacting to a different and more dangerous world. "Agencies are trying to do the right thing," said Rosetta Virgilio, a spokeswoman at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The commission closed its Web site on Oct. 12 and has since returned a bare-bones version of it to the Internet. Like other agencies, the commission has formed an internal working group to review its public information for "anything that might be sensitive or might be helpful to adversaries," Ms. Virgilio said.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics restricted access to its "National Transportation Atlas Data Base" as a "precaution" shortly after Sept. 11, said a spokesman, David Smallen. Mr. Smallen said of the map gallery, "We've not totally refused access to it, but we're judging requests on a case-by-case basis." 

The Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, has removed from its Web site a database with information on chemicals used at 15,000 industrial sites around the country, reflecting the "risk management plans" the industry must file with the federal government under the Clean Air Act. Tina Kreisher, a spokeswoman for the agency, noted that these databases reflected the fears of an earlier era, "when Bhopal hit India, and people said, `Do I have a chemical plant near me that stores something dangerous I should know about?' "

This information is still available in government-run "reading rooms" around the country, officials said. But withdrawing it from the Internet has its critics. Mr. Bass argued that "the benefits outweigh the risks" in maintaining easy access to such data, saying that families have a right to know if their school or day care center is adjacent to a potentially dangerous chemical site. Moreover, he added, such information can be pieced together from many other sources, including the telephone book. 

His group, OMB Watch, has continued to post "executive summaries" of those risk management plans on its Web site, part of what it calls RTK-Net, for "right to know."

"This is not an easy decision," Mr. Bass said. "We get hate mail. We get hate phone calls. It's amazing to say that, because for 12 years we've gotten accolades from presidents of both parties saying RTK-Net is wonderful." 

Indeed, many people say they feel conflicted on this issue, regardless of their position. The Federation of American Scientists, whose Project on Government Secrecy was created 10 years ago to force more government information into the open, decided after Sept. 11 to remove data from its Web site on United States intelligence sites, nuclear weapon facilities and similar matters.

The decision was made to err on the side of caution, said Steve Aftergood, who founded the Project on Government Secrecy. "I have had to come to terms with the fact that government secrecy is not the worst thing in the world," Mr. Aftergood said. "There are worse things."

Still, many advocates of openness in government argue that officials are removing information indiscriminately from the Internet.

"The dismantling of these Web sites seems to have been done without much deliberation, and in more of a panic than a considered judgment as to whether or not the American public should be deprived of this information," said Paul K. McMasters, the First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum, a nonprofit foundation that promotes freedom of the press. 

"It is precisely at such times that citizens have not just a right to know but a need to know," he added.

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a longtime advocate of the Freedom of Information Act, said through a spokesman, "As agencies use the discretion they have on what information they put on line for the public, there also needs to be Congressional oversight to make sure that discretion is not abused."

Still, there will be pressure from Congress in the other direction, too ? to ensure that agencies are exercising enough caution in what they make available on the Internet.

All this is based on an assumption that may be faulty, many engaged in this struggle say: that information once available can later be restricted, that the toothpaste, in other words, can be put back in the tube, in the age of the Internet. "The answer is how in the world could we?" Mr. McMasters said. "And if we could, would we want to?"

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