Don't let 'right to know' be a war casualty

Alexander Nikitin isn't getting hate mail anymore, but Gary Bass is.

Russian courts bravely acquitted the former Soviet submarine captain of treasonous disclosure of state secrets last year. Mr. Nitikin had brought to public attention the risks created by radioactive pollution from Russia's deteriorating Northern Fleet.

In the United States, Gary Bass has been using the Internet to publicize the risk of chemical accidents at industrial facilities. But since Sept. 11, he's been hounded by those who fear he and his watchdog group OMB Watch are providing a roadmap for terrorists bent on using US industrial facilities as weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Bass refused to follow the lead of the Environmental Protection Agency and others quick to pull information about chemical facilities, nuclear power plants, and pipelines off the Internet in the wake of the devastating terrorist attacks.

Bass isn't trying to make life easy for terrorists, but neither is he alone in believing that we are safer with more information about the risks we face, not less.

Some data should be kept secret. Who would want terrorists to access the architectural plans of a nuclear power plant? But should a community be left in the dark about risks posed by the chemical plant down the street?

In the pursuit of safety, where do we draw the line, and who draws it? The administration is drawing the line on the side of secrecy. And there is evidence (from a New York Times/CBS poll released last week) that the public, though strongly supportive of the war against terrorism, feels increasingly wary that the administration's effort will erode core civil liberties.

As government agencies frantically pulled information off the Internet, they found protection in an Oct. 12 memo from Attorney General John Ashcroft. He instructed them to "carefully consider" national security issues when releasing records under the 1966 Freedom of Information Act.

Years of hard-won battles that turned FOIA into a fundamental routine bulwark against government secrecy were undermined in a day. The memo ushered out the principle of "right to know" and replaced it with "need to know." Now, the presumption is that information is inherently risky.

This, ironically, when the rest of the world has been inspired by our information-access laws to head in precisely the opposite direction.

Eighteen days after the Ashcroft memo, former Soviet-bloc countries gathered in Geneva and opened symbolic "doors of democracy" to mark a new era in which governments must justify any withholding of information. Under the Aarhus Convention, those countries whose previous dedication to secrecy made it impossible to publish even phone books and city maps will now ensure that public requests for all kinds of environmental information will be honored.

In the US, the tensions between information and secrecy existed well before Sept. 11. Industry was already lobbying for protection from disclosure.

Defense against terrorism is not only about our safety, but also our values. As President Bush has reminded us, if we compromise these values, the terrorists have won. Americans have been encouraged to show patriotism by returning to airports and shopping malls. But an informed citizenry is more fundamental to our core principles than buying a new pair of shoes.

Government agencies acted quickly in a crisis. But as the Russians say, "nothing is so permanent as a temporary measure." Hasty decisions may lock us into ill-conceived policies we may have to live with for a long time. The December polling data suggests Americans understand this principle.

The fine line between information and secrecy must not be drawn behind the government's closed doors. Our open society deserves an open process that serves the interests of journalists, environmentalists, community groups, and others who have used information to highlight real problems.

We need to question whether less information serves legitimate national security needs, or simply protects special interests with something to hide.

Agitation for environmental information and reform helped pave the way for the vast changes in the former Soviet bloc. Love Canal and the Bhopal, India chemical catastrophe catalyzed the American right-to-know movement. As with Nikitin and Russia's nuclear fleet, bringing public-safety risks to public attention forces business and government to reduce those risks.

It would be supremely ironic if the environment - which is now the rallying point for open and transparent government around the world - became the victim of information lock-down here at home.

Tom Beierle and Ruth Greenspan Bell are fellows at Resources for the Future. Their research focuses on public participation in environmental decisionmaking in the US and abroad.

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