Not even George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth could have acted so quickly and thoroughly. With considerable ease, information vanished without warning from federal government Web sites in the wake of last September’s terrorist attacks. The malleable, somewhat dubious nature of the Internet made it simple for agencies to remove technical drawings, security evaluations, risk management plans, impact assessments and other public documents from sites with a few key strokes, leaving hardly a sign the information had ever been there.
Federal Aviation Administration security violation files were removed. Office of Pipeline Safety maps disappeared. The whole Nuclear Regulatory Commission Web site was suddenly missing.
Access advocates worried that agencies were pulling information on a whim, without setting guidelines for how or what information should be removed from sites. Fears have cooled a bit over the past year as many missing pages have slowly returned to government sites, sometimes after careful evaluation.
Watchdog groups are still concerned, however, that restored information may not be complete and that some agencies may not have created standard criteria to judge Web content.
REMOVED WITHOUT WARNING
In the days and weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, regulatory agencies didn’t need an administrative edict or congressional push to take down Web content.
“They were running scared,” said Patrice McDermott, president of the American Society of Access Professionals. “They were overacting, but it wasn’t too surprising.”
Agencies worried that information they made available to the public could somehow aid terrorists.
“The tragic events of Sept. 11 have compelled us to carefully review all of the information we make available to the public over the Internet in a new light,” the Environmental Protection Agency’s Elaine Stanley said in her November testimony before the House subcommittee on water resources and the environment.
Agencies didn’t want anything to happen on their watch, according to McDermott. Some information was removed quickly with little or no review, and without guidelines for what access needed to be limited.
“It is a serious problem. I think that the policy after Sept. 11 was clearly driven by the kind of cover your butt, let’s take anything down that is useful to a terrorist” mentality, said Harry Hammitt, editor and publisher of Access Reports.
Nothing but broken links and a handful of weak explanations clarified what was happening. And it wasn’t just the public that was left in the dark about what information had been removed; in many cases, the agencies themselves were unclear about what had been removed.
“The thing about the Internet is that there was so much up that we were not really sure what was up, and now we don’t know what’s down,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
OMB Watch, a government watchdog group in Washington, D.C., has been on the forefront of tracking what agencies have removed. Sean Moulton, a senior policy analyst for OMB Watch, said the organization found a lot of information was taken down with little fanfare, and even less notice.
“One of the hard things is even just trying to be sure to even know what has been taken away,” Moulton said. “There never really was a catalogue or index of what was on the government Web sites.”
OMB Watch has filed freedom of information requests with several agencies, asking for inventories of removed information and any internal guidelines created for data removal. The EPA has already responded, while Moulton said the Department of Energy says it has gathered a whole bookshelf worth of material, and it’s still processing the request.
Watchdog groups and access advocates named a handful of missing records they say are crucial to the public and useful to reporters. At the top of the list are the EPA’s removed risk management plans, which explain procedures to protect people and the environment around hazardous chemical storage facilities in the event of an accidental release. Moulton said the risk management database contained no blueprints or maps, just general information to educate the public about the risks associated with living or working near a chemical plant.
“That’s what the database was created for – to inform the public what was going on,” Moulton said.
The information also would have been useful to reporters. Todd Carter, of the Natural Resources News Service, said after Sept. 11 he looked for information about risks to chemical and sewage plants – things that were previously posed online – but discovered agency Web sites no longer provided those things. “The worst-case scenario stuff was really important to me in trying to make a story out of that,” Carter said.
McDermott said files the FAA took down on Sept. 14 were also things the public, state agencies and the media could have used.
“I think that was important to the flying public,” McDermott said.
Access advocates said some of the pressure to remove online information in the name of terrorism prevention came from industry special interest groups. Erasing that information, in some cases, happens to also be in the industry’s best interest.
“Some regulatory agencies used Sept. 11 as a reason to take down stuff that some of the industry groups wanted down anyway,” McDermott said.
Moulton agreed, saying industries often push for complete secrecy. “They never solve the problem by saying ‘this is the part that terrorists would really use,’” Moulton said.
Agencies say certain records came down as a matter of necessity.
“There were obvious things that we wanted to be sure weren’t on the Web,” said Brian Dunbar, NASA public affairs officer. NASA removed detailed maps of buildings.
“The idea was to protect employees and to protect facilities,” said Greg Hernandez, the online editor of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Web site. NOAA removed just a handful of things, including detailed information about wind patterns.
ACCESS UNDER ATTACK
While the initial wave of information removals directly followed the attacks, media coverage and pressures from the Bush administration pushed another wave of agencies to weed Web sites in early 2002.
A New York Times article published Jan. 13 explained how anyone with Internet access and $15 could purchase historical scientific studies about germ weapons – reports that some say amounted to bio-terrorist cookbooks.
The site where the information could be searched for and purchased – The Information Bridge, the Open Source to the Department of Energy’s Scientific and Technical Information – soon went through a housecleaning. The Department of Energy did an online search for terms such as “nuclear” and “chemical,” according to McDermott, and pulled every document that came up, including bibliographic information. That amounted to 9,000 documents.
“The bibliographic information disappeared, so you can’t tell that they were pulled,” McDermott said.
Other sites that provided expansive databases of information also came under fire, especially in March, when White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card issued a directive to agencies to re-evaluate what information about weapons of mass destruction and sensitive documents they made available. An additional memo from the Department of Justice addressed classified information, paying special attention to withholding information that was not classified but considered sensitive.
The directive and memo did not specifically address information on Web sites, but some say the new policies for giving out public information create a dangerous atmosphere, especially since the guidelines seem to be made outside the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.
“Right now the real problem are the policies that are starting to be advanced,” Moulton said.
But agencies don’t necessarily see eliminating Web content as a freedom of information issue. The 1996 “electronic amendments” made electronic records available under FOIA and mandated that government agencies create Web sites where the public can access information and submit FOIA requests. While the electronic amendments clearly encourage agencies to provide records electronically, such as on the Internet, they are not necessarily required to do so.
“They are supposed to put up frequently requested records, but even now it is not very obvious what that is,” Hammitt said.
Although it may be too soon to tell if pressure from the administration will severely limit access to records online, watchdogs are still on edge.
“I think it’s going to encourage agencies not to disseminate, online or otherwise, information that they might have in the past,” McDermott said.
FINDING A BALANCE
Although an untold amount of information is still missing, many of the pages pulled from the Web since Sept. 11 have crawled back online.
“Already some of the information they have pulled has returned,” said Will Doherty of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Some of it was people were panicky. … They wanted to err on the side of caution.”
Before that information could be reposted, many agencies created internal guidelines for what information is appropriate to post and used those guidelines to slowly sift through removed items.
“They have to create their own guidelines because they didn’t have them before,” McDermott said. “That is part of the reason why it is so slow. … It comes down a lot faster than it goes back up.”
Some agencies have been slow about creating guidelines – or don’t plan to create them at all. Food and Drug Administration Web Site Program Manager Bill Rados said, “there was no centralized spring cleaning going on” within the agency. Instead, different departments were asked to look over sites and determine if anything looked problematic. He only knew of one page that was edited for certain pieces of information and then restored on the site. He said information already goes through the proper experts for approval for public viewing before it reaches Webmasters, and the information provided in the FDA’s public reading rooms would also be approved for Web sites.
The FAA hired a new person to review all Web content, and it has just recently formed a committee to create guidelines. Until then, people within the agency who maintain Web sites have been asked to “use their best judgment,” according to spokeswoman Tammy Jones.
Policies that are not outlined specifically alarm access advocates. OMB Watch’s Moulton said that if there is no specific process for evaluating and removing information, different people may interpret loose policies differently, sometimes taking information down “just because.”
The EPA and NASA were among the few agencies that responded to OMB Watch’s FOIA request with a list of criteria by which they judged material. Both created guidelines for Web information within two months of the terrorist attacks.
“The EPA did come up with some sort of workbook. The other agencies didn’t even seem to be providing anything like that. It seems to be a lot more subjective,” Moulton said. “At least they told us, ‘here’s what we did.’ “
The EPA created a list of four criteria by which it could judge the sensitivity of the information.
NASA created a book of guidelines for publishing on the Internet. The book specifies the types of things that should not be on Web sites, from the obvious things – such as security passwords – to specific items that could compromise security.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which removed its whole Web site at the request of the Department of Defense on Oct. 11, formed a five-person committee to sift through every part of the Web site and determine guidelines for what should be removed, according to NRC spokesman Victor Dricks.
“We reviewed the information that was there and basically rebuilt the Web site from scratch,” he said.
No material that was easily available through other means or that would potentially aid terrorists was restored, according to Dricks. The Web site came back online, in a reduced version, on Oct. 17.
“This is an agency that is very closely watched by Congress and the public, and we have made a serious effort in recent years to conduct as much of our business in the open as possible,” Dricks said. “We wanted to strike a balance.”
Balance is what OMB Watch wants. “That’s really what we’d like to see agencies doing, that they have engaged in some balancing,” Moulton said.
Although much information has returned, watchdog groups warn that the information restored may not be the same as the original form.
For Web sites that still have empty pages, the public can often find the information removed by the government available through private resources, such as nonprofit groups or private company Web sites. For instance, Moulton said, OMB Watch offers summaries of the EPA’s removed risk management plans through its online Right-To-Know Network.
Even as information returns to government servers, the damage already may be done.
“The consciousness of how information could be used for bad things has seeped into our political system,” Hammitt said.
Amanda Lehmert worked as a summer Pulliam/Kilgore intern at SPJ’s national headquarters. She is a senior at Emerson College.
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