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Access Denied

Librarians are loath to destroy public information, but that's what some of them have been ordered to do


The basement of UNC-Chapel Hill's Davis Library is off the beaten path, even for most students. Most of the time, this is a place where dust collects and lonesome scholars shuffle through the stacks. Right now, however, it's home to materials at the center of a mounting debate about public access to government information.

Davis is a federal documents depository, which means that, by order of Congress, the raw material of democracy is stored here, in the form of bound volumes that are shelved floor-to-ceiling in seemingly endless rows. For almost three decades, Ridley Kessler, the university's documents librarian, has navigated these catacombs of congressional records and federal files.

Kessler's responsible for keeping them in order, up-to-date, and, above all, accessible. "That's our main job, and always has been: free public access," he explains. "We take that very seriously."

That's why Kessler blanched when he got a memo in late October from the Government Printing Office (GPO), which supplies the documents. In clipped, bureaucratic prose, the memo identified a U.S. Geological Survey report on "large public surface-water supplies" and then directed: "Please withdraw this material immediately and destroy it by any means to prevent further disclosure of its contents."

The report, which was issued in 1999 on a CD-ROM, is neither classified nor inaccurate. And while the memo from the GPO doesn't provide a reason for the destruction order--other than to say it was on request of the Geological Survey's Associate Director for Water--librarians assume that the government took this step to keep this information out of the hands of would-be bioterrorists.

That's an understandable objective, Kessler says, but still he hated pulling information out of the public domain. "I did not feel good," he says. "When you've spent your entire career trying to improve access, trying to get more materials in the program that haven't been in it before, and arguing with agencies about not complying [with information-sharing requirements], it's very irritating then to have something withdrawn, whatever the reason."

On the face of it, the reason--that terrorist attacks killed more than 3,000 people--seems clear enough, Kessler says. Nonetheless this has become a complicated issue for people like him, who are accustomed to facilitating the flow of information. "It's not that I don't understand the implications [of Sept. 11], but on the other hand, there are very few librarians who believe in censorship, no matter what. Because the results of it are worse than whatever the problem might be."

The real problem might be that, in America's new war, as in past wars, information has come to be viewed as a weapon--a weapon available to both friend and foe. Since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has recalled and restricted information that has been public for years, arguing that terrorists have and will continue to take advantage of government openness.

"We're an open society, but we're at war," President Bush said in a Nov. 29 speech. "Foreign terrorists and agents must never again be allowed to use our freedoms against us."

The clampdown has occurred on numerous fronts. On Oct. 12, Attorney General John Ashcroft directed federal agencies to exercise greater caution in responding to Freedom of Information Act requests. The Pentagon, which has honed its news management skills during a decade of interventions since the Gulf War, went so far as to secure exclusive rights to commercial satellite photos of the Afghan battle theater.

The most quantifiable controls have occurred online, as government Web pages have disappeared en masse. "I'm most concerned about information that is Web-based only," says Ann Miller, documents librarian at Duke University, which also hosts a federal depository. "There is no recourse if the government takes it down-on the Web, they have ultimate control."

OMB Watch, a nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C., is keeping an inventory of the sites that have been closed down since Sept. 11. According to the group, the information casualties of the war on terrorism include: numerous Geological Survey reports on water resources (including the one that was stored at Davis Library), the Department of Energy's site for "national transportation of radioactive materials," the entire site of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the "risk management plans" section of the Environmental Protection Agency's site, among dozens of other online documents. The most recent recall: On the weekend of Dec. 7-9, much of the Department of the Interior's site came down.

Kessler, more than most people, has kept an eye on this trend. "I've been here almost 30 years, and this has happened in several different ways," he says.

At the height of Vietnam War protests, the Defense Department recalled a manual on bomb-making that had made its way into the depository system, Kessler says. (A federal marshal came by to retrieve Davis's copy--but it was, and still is, missing.)

Later, during the Carter administration, the Department of Energy released a report that suggested, contrary to White House assertions, that there wasn't a genuine oil crisis. Washington ordered a recall, Kessler says, but inexplicably, they provided the wrong call number for the document. "So we hid ours until the crisis passed," he says.

Most recently, there was a flap last spring over the State Department's official history of U.S policy toward Indonesia in the 1950s. The GPO released the volume before the CIA signed off on it--and the spy agency didn't like the disclosures it contained. When word spread that the government was considering a recall, Kessler decided to rush-order the report so that the library would own its own copy, which would be exempt from a government recall. "But they had already removed it from the sales program," he says. Eventually the CIA backed down, and today anyone can walk into Davis Library and read the Indonesia history.

Kessler hopes that the documents that are disappearing during the present crisis will again be available to the public at some point. The general principle, he says, should be once public, always public. "If it's published and paid for by tax dollars, then people should be able to use it, unless it really is secret." The report he was directed to destroy, he points out, "has been in the library for quite some time, and I'm sure that anyone who wanted access to that has already got it or can find it."

Miller, who also was directed to destroy the CD-ROM, similarly questions the effectiveness of such recalls. "The issue I have with this information disappearing is that there seems to be no criteria--other than 'anything a terrorist could use for evil.' Well, a terrorist could use the Rand McNally road atlas to do evil if he wanted to, couldn't he?"

"Unfortunately there will probably be more requests like this in the future," Kessler predicts. He and other documents librarians are concerned that a federal purge of information on nuclear energy and chemical plants may be on the horizon.

"Anytime the government is not willing to tell you about things, that's when I get scared," he adds. "I'm old enough to know that when anybody does business in secret, no good can come from it, even if it's very well intentioned. There's too much room for abuse there. What you don't know about can indeed hurt you." EndBlock

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