Decrying secrecy, citizen groups fight back

More federal agencies are taking data off the Web, while citizens seek ways to restore public access

Public interest groups and federal officials agree on one thing: Because of homeland security concerns, information that was once readily available on public Web sites has steadily disappeared in recent years. But the agreement ends there.

The points of contention are numerous: Is government secrecy online a concerted policy with political overtones or the result of decisions made on a case-by-case basis? Is the missing information a legitimate part of the public record or sensitive data best protected from prying eyes?

They even disagree on the extent of the change. Bush administration officials insist they are dedicated to providing the public with as much access to government information as possible, but public interest groups say the problem is growing in scope. Open-government proponents are especially concerned about the politics of the situation. They say the administration often uses national security and privacy as excuses for hiding politically sensitive information rather than for protecting personal and classified data on the Internet.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said a sensible policy has gone too far.

“There are cases where there may be security concerns,” Aftergood said. “In the early days of government Web posting, there was a tendency to publish a lot of material somewhat indiscriminately: building floor plans, personal information, Social Security numbers, home addresses and so forth. There was some reason to reassess Web policy and to bring it into line with security and privacy concerns.”

Now the federal government is abusing that discretion, he said. “We just think that they’ve gone far overboard in the opposite direction. It’s most noticeable since” the 2001 terrorist attacks.

When the Internet was still a novel creation, federal agencies posted as much information as they possibly could, said Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the nonprofit research group Center for Democracy and Technology. But a greater impulse for controlling information has replaced that tendency, Schwartz said.


A question of transparency

Bush administration officials insist they have no general policy of withholding government information from the Internet or reducing the amount of information published online. Officials say the trend is toward greater online access.

They offer as evidence President Bush’s recent executive order that they say will strengthen the Freedom of Information Act. Other evidence is the government’s choice of a new search engine for the FirstGov federal Web site to help locate hard-to-find information.

“We are committed to providing the public with the greatest possible degree of access to government information,” said Alex Conant, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget. The president’s Dec. 14, 2005, executive order, “Improving Agency Disclosure of Information,” and a Dec. 16, 2005, OMB policy on public access to and dissemination of government information demonstrate that commitment, Conant said. “These new policies, together with existing ones, make the government’s program for disseminating information broader than ever before,” he added.

The Bush administration might not have an official governmentwide policy on secrecy, but more agencies are removing information from the Internet, Aftergood said. “The situation is slightly different in different agencies and in Congress,” he added. But across the board, the trend is to reduce the amount and quality of information published online, he said.

Some publishing decisions are easier to explain than others. For instance, in 2002 the Army created Army Knowledge Online (AKO), a password-protected Web portal of information, news and educational opportunities that is for military use only, which removed some previously public information from general consumption. The Weapon Systems Handbook, an unclassified publication once freely available online, now only appears on AKO. The handbook describes weapons systems that are in development and already in use. The Army has also removed biographical information about officers from Web sites to protect their privacy, Army officials said.

Army officials said they filter some online material because they do not want terrorists viewing military information that could be used to attack the United States. “Ever since the attacks on [Sept. 11, 2001] and in some instances a little prior to that, the Army has tightened up on the number of documents available on the World Wide Web owing to the fact that our wonderful resource, the Internet, can also be exploited by the enemy,” said Army spokesman Paul Boyce.

The Defense Department pulled another online resource, the Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin journal, without any explanation, Aftergood said. The journal, available to the public in hard copy from the Government Printing Office, is now accessible online only to the military. Government officials did not offer a specific reason for removing the journal from the Internet. “Various commands have encouraged their publications to be posted on AKO for no other reason than Army Knowledge Online is a portal that is accessible to all soldiers wherever they are,” said Lt. Col. Carl Ey, an Army spokesman. “There is no particular security reason. Bottom line is the Army developed AKO as a tool for soldiers, and if your intended audience is the soldier, you should post on AKO.”

Aftergood said putting up information barriers, such as those examples, can jeopardize governmentwide operations. “The outstanding lesson of the investigations into [the 2001 terrorist attacks] was the need to improve information sharing and dissemination,” he said. “The tendency to impose new restrictions on information publication goes in exactly the opposite direction. It’s against the grain of where technology and good public policy are trying to take us.”


Advocates fight back

Aftergood and other citizens have begun fighting online secrecy by disclosing the information on the Internet themselves. Through the federation’s Web site (www.fas.org) and an e-mail newsletter, “Secrecy News,” Aftergood circulates documents that the government has categorized as sensitive. He digitizes and uploads government reports that he acquires through FOIA requests, and he scans books that the government publishes only as hard copies.

Other advocacy organizations are using similar tactics and posting publications on their own. The Center for Democracy and Technology joined the act after unsuccessful efforts to offer citizens online access to Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports.

CRS, a taxpayer-funded think tank that is part of the Library of Congress, publishes papers on a variety of often-controversial public policy issues. The research service provides the reports only on restricted-access Web sites for members of Congress and legislative agencies.

The center responded by creating a Web portal (www.opencrs.com) that aggregates CRS reports that members of Congress have voluntarily released. Recently posted reports cover topics such as data security, interest rates and Internet taxation. Schwartz said he hopes the rogue site will encourage Congress to pass legislation forcing the release of all unclassified CRS reports.

“It’s difficult for people to know what information exists if the basic outline of it is not available,” Schwartz said.


Ambiguous policies

Open-government proponents say the most blatant example of the government asserting its perceived right to impose online secrecy followed the 2001 terrorist attacks when Bush administration officials issued a memo directing federal agencies to scrub their Web sites of sensitive data that could possibly aid terrorists. The memo does not define sensitive information.

In response to the ambiguous order, agencies created secret domains of information, protecting much more information than just content with national security implications, critics say. Enormous quantities of unclassified records are now out of public view, they say, adding that since 2001, administration officials have done little to reverse the consequences of that memo.

A conference committee report on the 2006 Homeland Security Appropriations Act calls for agencies to designate an official who would be responsible for marking documents as Sensitive Security Information and defining the criteria for that designation. The designation covers a broad range of transportation security information that is exempt by law from public disclosure.

“Because of insufficient management controls, information that should be in the public domain may be unnecessarily withheld from public scrutiny,” the conference committee wrote. The sensitive security designation is only one way the administration controls access to unclassified information.

Critics are not impressed with Bush’s Dec. 14 executive order that requires federal agencies to respond courteously to FOIA requesters and appoint chief FOIA officers. The order fails to address the cause of a growing FOIA backlog, critics say, adding that one source of the backlog is the practice of removing information from the Internet. Removing online access to documents can delay FOIA requests by months and add hundreds of dollars to the disclosure process.

Schwartz said the executive order also does not necessarily mean Bush administration officials are suddenly fond of openness. “I don’t think this administration has considered FOIA to be a priority in any sense, and they see it as a nuisance,” he said. “They’ve taken two steps backward, and now they’re taking a half-step forward.”

The president asked agencies to consider using information technology to adhere to FOIA policies. The chief FOIA officer “shall examine the agency’s use of information technology in responding to FOIA requests, including without limitation the tracking of FOIA requests and communication with requesters,” the order states.

Aftergood said he hopes that the order encourages federal departments, such as the FBI, CIA and DOD, to publish documents online after releasing them to FOIA requesters.

Contrasted with the difficulty of finding military information online, information about government grants, taxes and financial aid has become much easier to locate on the Internet. The federal government is trying to attract citizens to the information it does publish through an improved Web portal and a search engine that resembles popular search tools.

FirstGov now clusters search results into groups of related hits rather than simply displaying a list of random links. The new search engine is powered by Vivisimo, which operates the Clusty.com search engine, and Microsoft MSN Search. FirstGov has also incorporated more advanced search features, such as answers to frequently asked questions, forms and government job listings.

But other information is slipping from view. One problem is that GPO, through which so much information was once funneled, has found itself out of the loop when it comes to digital documents.

One of the most recent examples of the administration’s reluctance to publicize information online involved the response to the 2005 hurricanes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency did not make Hurricane Katrina recovery contracts easily accessible online. Many organizations, including the American Library Association, the National Coalition for History, OMB Watch and People for the American Way, petitioned administration officials to publish the Katrina contracts in a centralized, searchable database.

In December 2005, the petitioners sent a letter requesting that the contracts be published on the Internet as soon as officials sign documents, approve checks or disburse money. The administration’s efforts to post the contracts have been slow and irregular thus far, OMB Watch officials said, adding that they plan to send another letter.

“The public’s trust that the government is ready for the next disaster is definitely shaken,” said Rick Blum, director of the Freedom of Information Project at OMB Watch. “I hope this is a small step to help us understand what is happening and prevent the wasting of taxpayer dollars. [If the contracts are posted online], you’re going to get a whole world of auditors looking at this and asking questions, and that’s we need right now.”

The Office for Hurricane Katrina Oversight, part of the Homeland Security Department, did not have a response to Blum’s criticisms. DHS officials said citizens should write their congressional representatives about any concerns.

Disenfranchising GPO

In many ways, government information is becoming harder to find online. The Government Printing Office, which has historically served as the curator of government information, has less access now than before to some of that information. Agencies have taken control of their information and are publishing it online without notifying GPO.

Charles McClure, an editor at Government Information Quarterly who teaches information studies at Florida State University, said GPO does not have certain government documents because agencies do not feel compelled by law to submit all Web documents. No one is enforcing the U.S. Code that requires that all government information go to GPO, he said.

“In the good old days, the GPO depository library program was a way to get information out” to the public, McClure said. “A lot of agencies now say all that information is up on [agency] Web sites.”

As a result, GPO officials must track down fugitive documents that federal agencies published online but never sent to GPO’s database.

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