November 12, 2001The Energy Department has pulled information about nuclear weapons facilities from its Web site after being warned about it by a government watchdog group. The Washington-based Project on Government Oversight (POGO) sent a letter to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham on Oct. 3, notifying him of "detailed maps and descriptions of all 10 nuclear facilities with weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium" on the department's Web site. POGO discovered the information while researching security failures at Energy's nuclear weapons facilities. The group reasoned that "having these maps on a Web site, particularly in the aftermath of Sept. 11, appears to be irresponsible." Energy responded last week by removing "the most sensitive of these documents" from its site, according to POGO. POGO and Energy were unavailable for comment Monday and Energy's Web site was offline for most of the day. POGO has posted a redacted version of the letter on its Web site. Black marker obscures information on some of the locations and amounts of nuclear materials, which the letter quoted directly from Energy Department Web sites. However, much of what POGO urged Energy to take offline is still available from other sources online. For instance, POGO blacked out the amount of plutonium available at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons manufacturing plant. But the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's Web site provides a specific figure, calling it "the second largest stockpile of plutonium in the country." The Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund Web site reveals that "plutonium remains on site [at Rocky Flats] in liquid form in piping systems." POGO also chose to black out the building number where special nuclear materials were being consolidated at Rocky Flats. But the EPA's site provides the number of the building. Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said information "can call attention to a vulnerability and therefore make a vulnerability even greater or it can help mobilize the forces needed to remedy the vulnerability." But, he said "it is difficult to judge in any particular case whether you are exacerbating a vulnerability or helping to fix it when you call attention to it." This is not the first time a federal entity has decided to delete information deemed sensitive after the Sept. 11 attacks. The EPA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have all taken the initiative to sanitize their Web sites of information that, until recently, was firmly in the public domain. There is the temptation, Aftergood said, to say "Shhh, don't talk about that." But then, he pointed out, "the problem goes unfixed. The way problems get fixed in our society is when someone points them out and raises a big stink about them."
November 12, 2001