Removal of Web info concerns Democrats

Valuable scientific information is being stricken from government Web sites because it does not support the Bush administration's political agenda, a dozen House Democrats have charged.

In recent months, agencies that are part of the Department of Health and Human Services have removed information related to condoms, HIV and abortion from some of their Web sites, say the Democrats, led by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

The disappearance of material from Web sites operated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute, both part of HHS, prompted Waxman and 11 colleagues to question "the administration's commitment to the tradition of scientific excellence and science-based decision-making at HHS."

In a letter to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, the group complained about the removal of three items: National Cancer Institute information debunking the claim that abortions increase the risk of breast cancer; a CDC fact sheet stating that condoms are effective in stopping the spread of HIV; and a CDC report that described programs deemed effective in preventing tobacco use, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases among young people.

"Removal of this information strongly suggests an ideological rather than a scientific agenda at work," Waxman and the other Democrats wrote Oct. 21.

HHS officials said the Democrats' claim is baseless.

Outdated data, not political ideology, prompted the removals, said William Pierce, an HHS spokesman. "This goes on all the time in science. When we get new reports," old reports are stricken, he said. "Our goal is to make sure [agency Web sites] reflect the most up-to-date scientific thinking."

Striking two items from among the tens of thousands on the CDC Web site hardly constitutes a political purge, a CDC spokeswoman said.

A lot of new research has been done on the effectiveness of condoms against diseases since the fact sheet was posted on the Web. "It was taken down in order to update it," she said.

Politics appears to have played a role in the removal of information from the National Cancer Institute Web site, but it may have been as much congressional politics as the Bush administration's.

Nicole Gottlieb, a spokeswoman for the National Cancer Institute, said the information on abortions and breast cancer was taken off the Web earlier this year after the agency received a letter from Congress asking that it be removed.

Gottlieb said she did not know who sent the letter. An HHS official said he could not find it.

For now, the stricken information is being reviewed for accuracy, Gottlieb said. "Obviously, abortion is a highly charged issue. Several people have looked at it internally and externally. There have been a lot of remarks that something should be changed or that it should not be changed."

According to Waxman, removal of the abortion and breast cancer information prompted a bipartisan group of representatives to write to Thompson in July, asking him to contact the National Cancer Institute and have the information returned to the Web. So far there has been no response, the Oct. 21 letter says.

The battle over Web content is just part of an ongoing struggle between the Bush administration and organizations such as the Gay Men's Health Crisis and Human Rights Watch over sex education and the administration's preference for an "abstinence only" policy.

But the removal of scientific information from government Web sites raises new concerns about the Internet and government openness, said Darrell West, a political science professor and Internet expert at Brown University.

"This is new," he said. "The whole thrust of e-government and the Internet has been to put more information online." Until recently, "agencies were rushing to put everything they had online."

The rush slowed dramatically after last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. After the attacks, agencies launched sweeping purges of Web information they judged hazardous to homeland security.

"The homeland security issue has been broadened far beyond what homeland security could validly be considered to be," said Sean Moulton, a senior policy analyst at OMB Watch.

The Office of Management and Budget is considering a new category of government information that is "sensitive but unclassified" and should be withheld from the public.

But banning information because it conflicts with a political agenda would be a step beyond that, West said. "Essentially, e-government is now entering the political realm."

"The danger is that if information on government Web sites gets politicized, people will develop the same cynicism about e-government that they have about traditional government," he said.

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