Efforts to protect some public data from misuse are generating a mix of reactions
Amid preparations for the Homeland Security Department, the Bush administration is trying to decide the fate of unclassified information that now seems too dangerous to be made freely available to the public because of what terrorists could do with it.
Office of Management and Budget officials have been meeting with scientists, civil libertarians, librarians and others to gather advice on whether to limit public access to information that is "sensitive but unclassified."
Data now considered dangerous could include government research papers on deadly pathogens, highly accurate digital maps or detailed descriptions of toxic chemical storage facilities.
Much of it had been available for years on Web sites, in government libraries and in reports made available by government agencies. But since last September's terrorist attacks, federal officials have worried that some public information is now too public.
Agencies cut off access to thousands of documents on the Internet, ordered certain information in government libraries to be withheld or even destroyed, and simply stopped providing some information that used to be routinely released to the public.
The greatest concern is for safeguarding information that could help terrorists develop or use weapons of mass destruction. Another objective is protecting details of investigations into the terrorist attacks.
Thus, digital maps are no longer available online from the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, a CD-ROM containing information on the nation's water supplies was ordered destroyed at depository libraries, and tens of thousands of documents vanished from government Web sites.
The information clampdown has touched off a sprawling debate over how much information should be — and legally can be — withheld from the public. The Senate has squared off against the House, federal courts have challenged the Justice Department, and public interest organizations have decried the decisions of numerous federal agencies.
Now OMB is attempting to write "guidance" that could resolve the disputes.
An OMB official, speaking on background, said the agency is trying to write rules that will shield "a small but important set of information" from public disclosure while leaving "the vast majority of government information open and accessible."
Information would be withheld only if it is deemed to be "sensitive homeland security information," the official said.
The official did not describe what information would be sensitive, but said such data "will be protected or made available consistent with existing law and policy, such as under the Freedom of Information Act."
OMB's efforts are generating a mix of hope and fear among individuals and groups the agency is consulting.
Members of OMB Watch, for example, worry that OMB aims to establish a category of sensitive but unclassified information that will make it easier for agencies to avoid public scrutiny. "We're worried that this may become a way of hiding information, not because it puts the public in danger, but because it could be embarrassing to an agency," said Sean Moulton, an OMB Watch senior policy analyst.
"Our position is that it's not necessary to create a new category of information," he said. "The existing categories are more than sufficient to protect information. If it is truly dangerous, agencies can classify it."
On the other hand, if OMB adopts standards requiring agencies to demonstrate why information is sensitive, the amount of information withheld could decrease, Moulton said.
To the American Society for Microbiology, information restrictions threaten to impede scientific progress. For instance, research on deadly pathogens that is withheld to keep it away from terrorists also is unavailable to scientists developing antidotes, said Janet Shoemaker, the society's spokeswoman.
In August, the society urged giving "careful scrutiny" to manuscripts that might inadvertently help terrorists, but stressed that "science has always progressed best when there is open communication."
Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists described his encounter in August with OMB officials as "a cordial first round of meetings."
"I'm willing to be persuaded that there are reasons to take stuff off the Web," but to date, the process "has been very ad hoc, without clear standards and liable to abuse and arbitrariness," said Aftergood, who directs the federation's Project on Government Secrecy.
"We want to see more rigor in the process" and clear procedures for appealing agency decisions, Aftergood said. Ideally, rights granted by the Freedom of Information Act won't change, he added.
"We all have an interest in security, but we are all harmed by measures that go too far to restrict information," he said. So far, OMB gives "every indication of wanting to do the right thing."
Earlier attempts by the Bush administration to withhold sensitive data produced a "new climate" based on "a presumption to withhold information," according to the American Library Association.
In a memo last spring, the National Archives and Records Administration instructed agency chiefs to protect "sensitive information related to America's homeland security" even though it "might not meet one or more of the standards for classification."
Agencies then removed thousands of documents from government Web sites and seemed to disregard further instructions from NARA to carefully weigh the effects of withholding information against the benefits of an "open and efficient exchange of scientific, technical and [similar] information," according to the memo.
ALA officials hope OMB's guidance will produce consistency among agencies and not "sweep away disclosure and dissemination over the Internet," said Patrice McDermott of the ALA's Office of Government Relations.
At OMB, the guidance-writing process has just begun, the official said. A draft is expected to be published this fall, and OMB will accept public comments before producing a final version.
Observers say defining a "sensitive but unclassified" category for protecting information has its pros and cons. For example:
Pro: Requiring agencies to demonstrate why information is sensitive could decrease the amount of information being held.
Con: Providing a new category could give agencies a way to hide embarrassing information from public scrutiny.
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