Originally created 03/06/02

Aiken talk addresses new DOE criticism



Efforts to protect the nation's nuclear secrets since Sept. 11 have hurt the U.S. Department of Energy's credibility, a federal official said Tuesday.

"Many documents that were declassified, and some of us with a background in national defense security would say should not have been declassified, have been available to the public and potential terrorists for years," John Conway, the chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, said during a breakfast at Newberry Hall in Aiken.

"Attempts to withdraw them from the public Web sites and public document rooms are resulting in not-unexpected criticism," he told more than 120 people at the breakfast.

The Energy Department won't bear the brunt of such criticism alone, Mr. Conway said. He said he expected the work of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board to become harder.

The board was created in 1988 to provide independent recommendations on safety issues at nuclear-weapons facilities such as Savannah River Site.

"The extent to which the board will be able to continue to play a role or, as Congress stated, be instrumental in restoring public confidence in the Energy Department's management capabilities will be made more difficult," Mr. Conway said.

Rick Ford, an Energy Department spokesman at SRS, said the agency in committed to a policy of openness with the public but that the events of Sept. 11 forced it to look at previously public information in a new light.

"Since the September 11 tragedy, and the subsequent war effort of our country, I believe any reasonable person would agree that the Energy Department and all government agencies should review previously released documents that once seemed perfectly acceptable to be in the public domain, for information that terrorists now could use to attack the American people," Mr. Ford said.

"We've been doing these reviews as expeditiously as possible and getting information back out in the public domain as quickly as we can," he said. "We remain committed to being open about our activities and the potential impacts of those activities."

A local nuclear watchdog said any doubts about the Energy Department's new security procedures stem from its secretive past.

"The reason this is hurting the Energy Department is that it cannot afford to go back to secrecy," said Don Moniak, of Aiken, a community organizer for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

"It has no credibility with the public, and any time it withholds anything, people are going to expect the worst," said Mr. Moniak, who called the classification process "highly subjective."

Since Sept. 11, some records involving environmental and public-health issues have been withdrawn, he said.

Documents that seem to be more sensitive - such as a primer on how security forces can detect night-vision goggles - have been released, Mr. Moniak said.

"Information is being released that has no value to the public whatsoever," he said. "It only has value to someone who seeks to do harm. Yet the public is being denied very basic information that anybody who seeks to do harm probably has.

"A lot of people are classifying things that I suspect are very well-known already. I suspect our potential enemies already know it. Hiding it from the general citizenry hurts the country."

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409 or bhaddock@augustachronicle.com.