Security concerns drive rise in secrecy

Clampdown covers websites, libraries, even press releases.

During the darkest days of World War II, Americans were warned that "loose lips might sink ships." Information carelessly shared with wartime adversaries could quite literally cost lives and maybe even lead to military defeat.

Today's "war on terrorism" has its equivalent forms of government secrecy and censorship - controversial, but apparently accepted (so far, at least) by most Americans. The federal Government Printing Office has ordered public libraries to pull sensitive items from their shelves. Websites have been scrubbed of certain information and, in some cases, shut down entirely.

The Pentagon has urged defense contractors to use discretion in publicizing "even seemingly innocuous industrial information" normally touted in press releases. The federal Freedom of Information Act has been curtailed. Calls have surfaced to censor environmental groups that reveal toxic polluters in the name of public health and safety.

President Bush alluded to this trend last week at a conference of US attorneys. "We're an open society, but we're at war," he said. "Foreign terrorists and agents must never again be allowed to use our freedoms against us."

While most open-government advocates are worried about this mounting clampdown, some acknowledge the need (for example) to pull the shade on information about nuclear power plants that has been available to the public. The Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based group that fights what it believes to be the government's over-classification of information, has removed about 200 pages related to intelligence and nuclear weapons from its own website.

Another private watchdog group, the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, urged the US Department of Energy (which runs the federal government's nuclear-weapons program) to remove from its website "highly sensitive information that could be useful to terrorists."

The prospect of secret military tribunals for captured terrorists, as well as Justice Department secrecy about those arrested or detained for questioning in this country since the Sept. 11 attacks, have been cause for growing debate.

"A common thread in the recent Justice Department actions is the secrecy and lack of congressional consultation," Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington, told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. "By considering these actions in secret before adopting them, the administration prevented any public debate about their effectiveness."

But defenders say such secrecy could help prevent future attacks. "Information about who is presently detained by the government, when and where they were arrested, their citizenship, and like information could be of great value to criminal associates who remain free," former US Attorney General William Barr told the same committee. One concern, he said, is that more information about law-enforcement techniques would make it easier for Al Qaeda members to elude detection.

Attorney General John Ashcroft no doubt will face sharp questions on such issues this week when he appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Equally controversial is the debate over government agencies and private organizations that use "right-to-know" laws to alert citizens to potential health and environmental dangers. The Environmental Protection Agency and some state agencies have removed or restricted such information, as well as data about such potential terrorist targets as dams, reservoirs, and pipelines.

This has government watchdogs worried. "By restricting our right to know, even through a well-intentioned effort to protect safety, government is abandoning its duty to warn the public if a community is at risk," says Jeremiah Baumann, environmental health specialist at the US Public Interest Research Group in Washington.

That's not a view universally shared. "Not to mince words, but public safety always trumps environmental concerns," says Amy Smithson, an expert on chemical and biological weapons with the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington. "In this day and age, Washington can no longer afford to hand any interested individual a road map to the chemical calamities they could cause...."

In the wake of recent anthrax attacks, the danger of biological weapons is "prompting scientists themselves to question the proper limits of secrecy and disclosure in this sensitive field," says Steven Aftergood, who heads the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy.

Still, those who advocate increased secrecy and censorship face new challenges as information moves to cyberspace. One major problem is that once something is available on the Internet, just shutting down the primary site doesn't mean a complete blackout, since the information still can be found on private hard drives or for sale on CD-ROM.

All of this comes at a time when the trend has been toward more openness in government. In the wake of a 1995 executive order by former President Bill Clinton, agencies have been declassifying millions of pages of documents no longer in danger of compromising national security - most of those from the Defense Department.

In its annual report, released last week, the federal Information Security Oversight Office reported that "in spite of increasing obstacles, the agencies of the executive branch continue to declassify unprecedented numbers of records of permanent historical value."

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