Latest info scrub worries public interest advocates

The Bush administration has ordered tighter controls on government information that could help terrorists. But the order is so vague that it threatens to also sweep away information valuable for public safety, public interest advocates warn.

White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card has ordered agency chiefs to immediately cut off public access to information on "weapons of mass destruction, as well as other information that could be misused to harm the security of our nation and the safety of our people."

The March 19 order is expected to trigger a vigorous scrubbing of agency Web sites and a culling of document shelves.

Card said agency chiefs "have an obligation to safeguard government records regarding weapons of mass destruction." A number of agencies hold documents — some unclassified — on how to construct biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Others reveal locations of U.S. nuclear stockpiles.

Card also instructed agencies to review records management procedures and report to him within 90 days.

Among federal Webmasters, there is little resistance to the order to cut public access to sensitive information, said a senior government Internet worker.

"I don't think many of us have too many concerns" about restricting access to information that might help terrorists. "This is war," he said.

Card's memo was accompanied by further instructions from the National Archives and Records Administration. NARA directed agencies:

n Not to declassify a wide range of classified documents, even if the classification time has since expired.

n To classify some documents that have never been classified and reclassify some that have been declassified.

n To protect "sensitive information from inappropriate disclosure" even if it is not classified.

The third part of NARA's instructions is the most controversial.

"People are pretty concerned about the sensitive-but-unclassified category," said Patrice McDermott, assistant director of government relations for the American Library Association. "It could sweep in an awful lot of information," which worries librarians and others interested in public access to information.

For example, airline safety data and infrastructure information that is valuable to the public could be withheld if agency officials deem it useful to terrorists, she said.

"I am persuaded there is information out there that should be removed," said Steven Aftergood, a senior analyst for the Federation of American Scientists. Most of it is not on the Internet but on paper at agencies such as the Defense Technical Information Center, he said.

However, Aftergood criticized the White House order as "inadequate." It fails to set criteria for what should be withheld, and it does not require agencies to keep public lists of the information removed. The administration also fails to give the public a chance to challenge agency decisions, said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, an independent public advocacy organization.

Bass worries that the United States "is moving from a society based on the right to know to one based on the need to know."

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