At the Project on Government Secrecy in Washington, Steven Aftergood makes his living as a watchdog for the public, rooting out "excessive government secrecy" and promoting the free flow of ideas.
But in the aftermath of the World Trade Center massacre, the publisher of Secrecy News has pulled from its own Web site more than 200 pages of previously posted information out of concern that terrorists might find them useful.
"We need to take a moment to assess the new security environment," said Aftergood, who directs the project for the Federation of American Scientists. "We want to make sure we are not making things worse. We're just trying to do the right thing."
Gone from its Web site are floor plans of National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency facilities. Gone are images of foreign nuclear weapons plants.
It is an awkward moment for a group that frequently charges that the government hides vital information, but it is not alone in its actions. Agencies throughout the federal government are removing what they consider sensitive information from the Internet.
While Aftergood's views the terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon as a reason for greater secrecy, other information watchdogs are raising an alarm that the tragedies may be used as a pretext to squelch facts that the public has a right to know.
"The lights are going out all over the Internet," said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a Washington group that advocates for government accountability in budgetary and regulatory matters.
Some of the information removed from federal Web sites, at least temporarily, includes politically sensitive reports that both business and government interests had battled unsuccessfully to keep out of the public domain.
For example, the Environmental Protection Agency has pulled from its Web site Risk Management Plans, which contain detailed information about the dangers of chemical accidents, such as toxic plume maps and emergency response plans after a refinery explosion.
"We believe workers and families need to know about the dangers present in their communities," said Bass.
Other examples cited by OMB Watch:
- The Department of Transportation has limited access to the National Pipeline Mapping System, which lays out the network of high pressure natural gas pipelines throughout the nation.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pulled a report about lack of preparedness against a terrorist attack using poison gas or other chemical agents.
- The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry dropped a report critical of chemical plant security.
- The Federal Aviation Administration has pulled data from a Web site listing enforcement violations such as weaknesses in airport security.
- Geographic Information Services, which provides highly detailed maps of roads and utilities, is limiting access to federal, state and local government officials.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, notes there is no constitutional right to access to government information. Those rights instead are spelled out by the Freedom of Information Act. Congress and government agencies can exclude information on legitimate national security grounds.
"In the end, we are being asked to trust the government an awful lot lately, and it's against our nature to give them wholesale trust," Dalglish said.
She believes that attempts to thwart terrorist access to public information may be misdirected, or futile. "It didn't take a supersecret map for terrorists to find the World Trade Center," she said.
Lee Tien, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties group in San Francisco, noted that much of the material being barred from the Internet will still be accessible in public reading rooms.
"We've always maintained that there should not be a distinction between the print world and the online world," Tien said.
He said the growing list of government Web sites that are being sealed off from public view is a familiar one. The battle lines have been drawn earlier in disputes between government agencies, corporations and consumers seeking unfettered access to information.
"One of their arguments then was that the bad guys could use this information, and we should protect ourselves," Tien said.
Project on Government Secrecy director Allgood still believes that the government uses national security grounds to shield itself from proper public scrutiny, but he acknowledges that Sept. 11 has changed the calculus.
"If there are people among us who are intent upon spectacular mass murders, then all of our security policies need to be recalibrated," he said.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.)