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Researchers stymied by clampdown on government records

By The Associated Press

10.15.02

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INDIANAPOLIS — Some scientists are running into a major post-Sept. 11 stumbling block: Federal restrictions have eliminated access to information vital to their studies.

The government has cut Internet links, stripped information from agency Web sites and even required federal librarians to destroy a CD-ROM on public water supplies. Researchers worry that the rush to protect national security will hurt their efforts and the public.

"It can be so expensive to engage in a public dialogue under these conditions of secrecy," said Greg Mello, head of the environmental watchdog group Los Alamos Study Group.

The White House in March provided government agencies with a guide to help them review information that could be "misused to harm the security of our nation and the safety of our people."

The memo was intended to remind agencies to examine security issues regarding government documents, said Laura Kimberly, associate director for policy with the federal Information Security Oversight Office.

"If there was a question about whether something should be declassified or not before Sept. 11 probably the attitude was to declassify," Kimberly said. "Now there's a more conservative approach."

The result, say experts, has been an information clampdown.

For example, University of Michigan researchers lost access to an Environmental Protection Agency database with information vital to their three-year study of hazardous waste facilities.

"We hadn't counted on spending time on having to cajole for publicly available information," said Robin Saha, one of the researchers. He said the EPA added new query tools, but the information comes up in a different format.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project On Government Secrecy, says unclassified technical reports have been yanked from the Los Alamos National Laboratory Web site.

"It either creates unnecessary labor to identify and track down a copy of the missing document or it yields an inferior or incomplete product," Aftergood said of the new restrictions.

The government watchdog group OMB Watch has sent Freedom of Information Act requests to federal agencies asking what information was removed from Web sites because of the terrorist attacks.

"Because the pressure is off to deal with this, they've kind of done this hatchet job on their Web sites and are making no real effort to repair them," said Sean Moulton, a policy analyst for the group.

A year ago, government librarians received a letter telling them to destroy copies of a U.S. Geological Survey CD-ROM about public water resources. The agency decided the CD-ROM had information that could be used to damage the nation's water supply, said Katherine Lins, science adviser for water information at the Geological Survey.

The request was the only one depository libraries received to take information off the shelves over security concerns. But librarians also fear a chilling effect on government Web sites.

"It's sort of the national history that's being withdrawn," said Andrea Sevetson, former head of government information at the University of California at Berkeley. She fears people won't post information at government Web sites "because they don't want to get in trouble."

Related

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

A matter of balance: Secrecy doesn't guarantee security
By Ken Paulson Using the terrorist attacks as justification for this new wave of efforts to close public records would be too easy — and misleading.  03.24.02

White House puts new controls on federal Web sites
Open-government advocates worry directive limiting access to information about weapons of mass destruction could be used to withhold array of other material.  03.22.02

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

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

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