The Information Wars

Terrorism has become a pretext for a new culture of secrecy

Within twenty-four hours of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center the federal Department of Transportation had removed maps of the nation's 2.2 million miles of pipe lines from its Web site. The government had created the maps only recently, to identify places where ruptures in pipes that carry oil, natural gas, or hazardous chemicals could endanger lives, property, or drinking water. In the 1990s an average of four accidents a week caused property damage of more than $50,000, injury, or death.

The removal of the maps was hardly an isolated incident. Since September federal and state officials have stricken from Web sites and public reports thousands of pages of information about health and safety risks to Americans—information, officials say, that might somehow aid terrorists. The Environmental Protection Agency withdrew from its Web site information about accidents, risks, and emergency plans at factories that handle dangerous chemicals. Energy regulators removed reports on power plants, transmission lines, and the transportation of radioactive materials. The Federal Aviation Administration stopped posting enforcement information about security breaches at airports and incidents that threatened airline safety. The U.S. Geological Survey removed reports on water resources and asked libraries to destroy all copies of a CD-ROM that described the characteristics of reservoirs.

Some state governments went further. Florida not only restricted access to security plans for hospitals and state facilities but also gave the president of the state senate authority to close formerly public meetings. In a directive that was itself intended to be secret, New York State's directors of public security and state operations ordered agency heads to curb public access to all "sensitive information." What, exactly, was "sensitive"? "Information related to systems, structures, individuals and services essential to the security, government or economy of the State, including telecommunications ... electrical power, gas and oil storage and transportation, banking and finance, transportation, water supply, emergency services ... and the continuity of government operations." Just about everything, that is.

These were extraordinary measures for extraordinary times. Administration officials moved quickly and appropriately to remove from the Web maps of nuclear-power plants and defense installations, for example. The Web, they argued, transformed previously scattered information into mosaics of opportunity for extremists. But a year after the terrorist attacks temporary emergency actions have evolved into fundamental changes in the public's right to know, and the restrictions have been driven as much by familiar politics and bureaucratic instincts as by national security. The problem comes because a new and uncertain threat has provided cover for legitimate and opportunistic measures alike.

Even before September 11 the Bush Administration had taken unprecedented steps to expand official secrecy. Early last year Vice President Dick Cheney refused to provide to Congress the names of energy-industry executives who had advised the energy-policy task force he headed. That action provoked the first lawsuit ever by the General Accounting Office against the executive branch. Also before September 11 the Justice Department initiated work on a new policy to support agency actions to keep secret any government information, as long as agency heads had a "sound legal basis" for withholding it. This reversed a presumption in favor of disclosure unless the government could show "foreseeable harm."

By October, President Bush was calling for new policies to shield information voluntarily provided by private companies about weaknesses in "critical infrastructure"—a malleable term that the Administration said should include telecommunications, energy, financial services, transportation, and health care. In March, Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, ordered all agencies to adopt guidelines to prevent inappropriate disclosure of "sensitive but unclassified" information —without actually defining the term.

Typically, these new rules have been put into effect by memorandum, without public explanation. Missing has been any forum for weighing the risks of shutting off public access. Recent congressional debate about restricting access to critical infrastructure information under the Freedom of Information Act provided one limited step in the right direction, producing constructive ideas about how to narrow the definition of what is critical while still satisfying the concerns of national-security agencies.

Zealous secrecy in response to a foreign threat is not new, of course. In a Harvard commencement address this past June, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan reminded students that the Cold War had produced a culture of secrecy that outlived the conflict and at times actually impaired security. That culture had largely disappeared by the end of the 1990s, as a better-informed public and the growth of the Internet drove advances toward openness. The Clinton Administration declassified millions of pages of historical records, and Congress approved the Electronic Freedom of Information Act, which encouraged agencies to put information online even before it was requested.

The wholesale censorship of information on Web sites and in government reports carries insidious costs. Current government proposals to bar foreign nationals from working on scientific projects and to restrict publication of government-funded research could actually decrease national security. Relying on partial truths and official conclusions can create needless scares, increase risks, and ultimately change the political process.

Compromises that deem some members of the public more worthy than others violate basic fairness. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, long known for its openness, now requires researchers to register before it gives them direct access to its enormous Envirofacts database. It also requires them to obtain sponsorship from a senior official and have their requests approved in advance. "The danger is that right to know is replaced by need to know," says Gary D. Bass, the director of OMB Watch and the organizer of a new coalition of environmental, health, labor, journalist, and library groups tracking secrecy changes.

An administration that prides itself on conducting business like a well-run corporation naturally thinks that sensitive information can and should remain proprietary. But national security is everyone's concern, and the idea that openness can be more effective than secrecy in reducing risks has received too little attention.