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Fertilizer plant blast: Does post-9/11 secrecy make your life riskier?

Following the fertilizer plant blast, Texas cited terror concerns in withholding information on dangerous chemicals. Some say that secrecy deprives citizens of the ability to make decisions about their safety.

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After the state, in response to media requests for more information about other fertilizer plant sites, invoked a little-known “confidential information” law that gives wide secrecy discretion to government officials, the Dallas Morning News’ editorial board wrote that avoiding tipping off potential terrorists is understandable, “[b]ut in the process of keeping terrorists guessing, [the state] denied the right [of West residents] to make informed choices and protect themselves from imminent danger.”

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Historians note that the 1970s were a high point for national activism to release information about chemical storehouses and pollution, peaking with the 1986 “right-to-know” act. The Texas Disaster Act of 1975 also sided with the public’s right to know about potential backyard dangers, officials testified on Wednesday.

But despite those laws and given dwindling activism, says Mr. Loomis, the trend in government has been toward restricting the dissemination of information to the public, a reticence only boosted by the terror attacks of 9/11. For the most part, he says, the public has remained relatively nonplused, meaning that it’s become easier for public officials to at best ignore, or at worst demonize, newspapers and other media for disseminating sensitive information.

Critics call such tendencies toward secrecy a callous calculation that assumes that while people are entrusted to elect politicians who appoint bureaucrats and make policy, they have neither the inclination nor ability to properly handle critical information.

“The lack of faith [by government officials] in the American people’s ability to process information doesn’t quite fit democracy, you know?” says Texas native Glenn Smith, the author of “The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction” and consulting manager at the Texas Progress Council, a progressive think tank in Austin.

“If the people in the community of West had all the information about the dangers, and knew ahead of time … how big an explosion it could cause, they may have demanded preventive steps be taken,” he says. “But they didn’t know. [Authorities] are in essence saying that they’re not giving information to protect residents, that giving them information would be a greater risk – it’s preposterous.”

On the other hand, some experts doubt whether helping Americans pinpoint exactly where companies store volatile compounds in their neighborhoods would really change behavior of citizens. If so, governments like the state of Texas may be in the right to err on the side of caution when publicly discussing issues like the locations of chemical stockpiles.

“The way to sort this out is to look at whether each individual should be making their own decision [based on widely available] information or whether, if government limits access to the information, does it then have the commensurate obligation to be even surer that the plants are safe?” says Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist at George Washington University and author of “How Patriotic is the Patriot Act?” which explores the balance between rights and security in the post-9/11 era.

“Personally, when there’s increased risk, I’d much rather rely on public authorities to protect me than give me [sensitive] information,” says Mr. Etzioni. “I’m not claiming the government is competent; I’m claiming that government is less incompetent than I am.”

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