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White House puts new controls on federal Web sites

By The Associated Press

03.22.02

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WASHINGTON — The White House has placed new controls on government information about weapons of mass destruction and is telling agencies to clear Web sites of even unclassified data that could help terrorists.

Open-government advocates say information about nuclear, biological, radiological and chemical weapons should be kept out of the hands of would-be attackers. They worry, however, that the guidelines released March 20 could be used to withhold an array of other material as well.

"The wonder of the Web is that it makes it so easy to access information from remote areas of the world," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer yesterday. "If you're sitting in Afghanistan, you can access this. Our enemies are those who would use our technology against us. Look at Sept. 11."

Steven Aftergood, who directs the Federation of American Scientists' government secrecy project, agrees that cookbook-type material about weapons of mass destruction should be classified, even reclassified if it's been released before.

Information about weapons of mass destruction also can be used to advance medical treatment, develop vaccines, facilitate cleanup and aid other emergency preparedness, he said.

Thus, he said, "It's important to distinguish carefully."

In a memo, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card ordered federal agencies and departments to take a look at their record management procedures and public documents and report back within 90 days to the Office of Homeland Security.

An accompanying memo from the Information Security Oversight Office said information that could be used to help someone develop or use weapons of mass destruction should be kept classified or reclassified. The memo also told agencies to keep control of data that's not classified but contains sensitive information about the weapons systems or other threats to domestic security.

It's this loosely written category — called "sensitive but unclassified information" — that has raised concerns among advocates for government openness.

"It's going to prompt a far-reaching review, a scrubbing, of not just Web sites, but public reading rooms, as well as place a new layer of scrutiny on the Freedom of Information Act," Aftergood said.

"When agencies get FOIA requests for a particular document, they won't just ask, 'Is it unclassified or not?' They will also ask, 'Well, it may be unclassified, but is it sensitive? Should I make an extra effort to withhold it?' "

Gary Bass, director of OMB Watch, an organization supporting greater access to government information, also wonders what kind of information will fall into the new category.

"If it includes risk-management plans put out by the Environmental Protection Agency, then I'm very troubled," Bass said. "These plans are precisely the kinds of things that could be looked at both ways."

A risk-management plan written about an area around a chemical plant could be viewed as a "road map to terrorists" by some and a document to help protect people in the neighborhood by others, he said.

"We have a basic principle of 'right to know' in this country," Bass said. "It is shifting, ever so subtly, to becoming one based on a need to know."

Related

Open-government advocates see 'epidemic of official secrecy'
Analysis No White House can arbitrarily withhold information and expect to maintain public confidence, says Federation of American Scientists' Steven Aftergood.  11.15.01

Web sites remove data, citing security concerns in wake of attacks
Meanwhile, Pentagon asks major defense contractors to be careful what they say about weapons they make.  10.04.01

Secrecy foes continue push for government openness
Analysis Despite crackdown on information access since Sept. 11, FOI advocates are continuing to fight for public's right to know.  04.03.02

Federal judges, agencies block online access to public records
First Amendment advocate says move reflects unfounded fear that ‘electronic information is more dangerous than paper information.’  10.12.01

2002 National FOI Day resources
Material from March 15 conference, 'Access & Security in a Time of Crisis.'  03.18.02

Researchers stymied by clampdown on government records
Some scientists say post-Sept. 11 records restrictions have eliminated access to information vital to their studies.  10.15.02

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