Agencies pull sensitive information from Web sites

In an attempt to keep potentially dangerous information away from terrorists, the federal government is feverishly erasing an untold number of pages from its official Web sites.

To the consternation of watchdog groups and many journalists, government agencies have been quietly deleting detailed descriptions of, among other things, U.S. fuel pipelines, nuclear reactors, chemical plants, and defense operations.

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission say they received no White House directive to pull information off their Web sites.

"This is something we're doing on our own," said NRC spokesman Victor Dricks. In fact, the deletions appear to be happening in an ad hoc, sometimes contradictory, manner.

Twenty-one journalism organizations, including the Society of Professional Journalists, the Poynter Institute, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association, criticized the government's sweeping, unannounced actions. The journalism groups asserted in a statement released on October 13 that "these restrictions pose dangers to American democracy and prevent American citizens from obtaining the information they need."

Quite a few public interest, First Amendment rights, library, and environmental groups are also voicing concern about the deletions and are closely monitoring government Web sites, according to Gary Bass, the head of OMB Watch, a Washington-based government watchdog group.

"At a time when it's understandable that everyone's on pins and needles, our [government's] initial response may be to overreact" by withdrawing too much information, Bass said. "We need to come up with a rational plan for this."

Among the most controversial deletions involve data on potentially dangerous chemicals stored at 15,000 company sites around the nation. Those chemical reports, which had been posted on the EPA's Web site, included companies' detailed emergency plans for evacuating the regions around the chemical plants in the event of an accident.

EPA officials removed that information from the Web site shortly after the September 11 attacks. However, summaries of the risk-management plans for chemical accidents are still available on OMB Watch's Web site.

Bass argues that people have a right to know about the potential dangers in their neighborhoods. "If I were the parent of kids going to a child care center near a chemical plant, I'd sure as heck want to know that my kids were in a dangerous area," he said. Even before the recent terrorist attacks, chemical industry officials-citing concerns about terrorism and competition-had sought to limit the public's ability to review the EPA's risk-management information.

OMB Watch's decision to continue offering the risk-management data on its Web site has put Bass at odds with chemical industry groups. It has also attracted hate mail and irate phone calls from people who accuse him of playing into the hands of terrorists.

OMB Watch was singled out for criticism in a recent National Review column by Jonathan H. Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University. Adler argued that the United States' "enemies will not attack us with tanks and fighter planes. Rather, as on September 11, they will identify our vulnerabilities and turn the fruits of modern industrial civilization against us.... We should not support federal agencies or environmental activist groups exposing our Achilles's heels."

Meanwhile, some news organizations have turned up other sensitive information available on nongovernment Web sites, including details about the secure bunkers available for use by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. On Tuesday, ABC News reported that the locations and layouts of those military command centers, as well as descriptions of the centers' water supplies, are readily accessible at the click of a mouse. Federal officials promptly condemned the public posting of such government secrets.

Among federal agencies, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has taken the most dramatic action to restrict access to information it had previously made public. On October 11, the NRC took an unprecedented step, which it explained in a statement that was all that remained of its once extensive Web site: "Our site is not operational at this time. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has taken the action to shut down its Web site. In support of our mission to protect public health and safety, we are performing a review of all material on our site. We appreciate your patience and understanding during these difficult times."

According to a letter from Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., to NRC Chairman Richard Meserve, NRC officials told Markey's staff that NRC's site was closed at the request of "a military officer who alleges that there was classified information on the site."

Even before taking its Web site down, the NRC had withdrawn a map of the nation's 103 active commercial nuclear reactors. Inexplicably, however, the site had continued to provide the names and addresses of those facilities. And regional maps of the reactor sites continued to be available on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Web site.

Other data deleted from government sites included maps of natural gas and oil pipelines, maps of waterways and bridges, and information on hydroelectric dams. The Federal Aviation Administration's Web site has stopped providing details about its enforcement actions and the records of airplane accidents.