A new era of security has brought with it a new era of secrecy, and as a result, it's time to add one more case of disappearing data to the post-Sept. 11 public information casualty list. Citing national security concerns, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has unceremoniously purged an online database of documents on former defense sites.
The database, the Project Information Retrieval System, had won praise for making thousands of reports detailing hazardous sites and cleanup activities readily available to the public. For those living on and near former defense sites, it provided crucial information with the proverbial click of a mouse. Two weeks ago, for example, The Independent published an exposé about unexploded weapons in and around the former Camp Butner, a World War II training base north of Durham. The Army left thousands of acres littered with bombs, and now houses are springing up on top of them--to the shock of homebuyers. Many of the documents cited in the article, including detailed site and historical reports, were obtained from the online database.
Suddenly, those documents are offline and effectively off limits. During the last week of February--incidentally, within days of the publication of the Independent article--the database disappeared from the public realm. Although it is composed of unclassified records, now the only people who can access it are government employees with a password to get beyond a firewall. Private citizens who access the site, which is maintained by the Corps' Rock Island District, headquartered in Illinois, are now greeted with this sentence: "
Due to national security reasons, the Project Information Retrieval System is no longer available to the public."
The system will be missed. It was, before it disappeared, an example of effective "e-government," making information about hundreds of potential danger spots available to the people who needed it most--residents of former military lands. In addition to the documents regarding Butner, the system stored papers on another 19 Army Corps of Engineers cleanup projects in North Carolina alone. Because public information has proved lacking at many former defense sites, the database was especially valued.
In addition to informing the public, the system also cut Army expenses. An Army Corps of Engineers briefing document that touts the database's merits is still available on the Web. The document notes that the Project Information Retrieval System had significantly opened the flow of information about former defense sites, saving the government from spending significant sums fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests about those sites. Instead of filing such requests, interested individuals could log on and find the information immediately. The savings in 2001, the document says, totaled an estimated $320,000. By then, more than 5,000 documents on more than 1,500 sites had made their way into the system.
Despite such savings, and the site's usefulness to the public, now all that information has been scrubbed away because, the military says, terrorists could make use of it. "The reason it's been taken down, basically, is because there's a lot of concern within the Department of Defense and Homeland Security about what type of information is available on the World Wide Web," says Candice Walters, a spokesperson for the Corps of Engineers' headquarters in Washington, D.C. "At a lot of these sites there may be some chemical munitions that have been buried or tested or something like that. And the concern is that someone, maybe a potential terrorist, may be able to go to those sites. They may be able to come up with enough information that they could go dig something up and make a dirty bomb.
"As a public affairs person, I was very upset to think that we needed to shut it down, because I hate to limit access," Walters says. In this case, she argues, the limits are not unacceptably severe, because regional Corps offices should have the project reports on file, and should therefore be able to make documents on specific projects available to people who request them.
"The information on those sites is available at other locations, it's just not available for the entire country in one place," as it was before, she says.
Penny Schmitt, spokesperson for the Corps' Wilmington District, says that while she's happy to help with specific requests, there's no ready mechanism for doing so, certainly none that would rival the quick and unimpeded access that the Web site provided.
Though this is a significant loss of access to government information, it's hardly an isolated one. Since Sept. 11, dozens of federal agencies have stripped "sensitive but unclassified" data from their Web sites. "For instance, we don't have bios of our district leadership up on the Web anymore, and we don't have information about our dams up anymore," Schmitt says. "There are all kinds of information that we were happy for the public to access, before we started to think that our public may start to include serious terrorists."
In the end, however, secrecy may be trumping real security, as citizens lose access to data about clear and present dangers like unexploded ordnance and military pollution. The quiet death of the online information is a sign of the times, say freedom of information advocates, who complain that the war against terrorism has led to a stranglehold on information the public needs and is entitled to.
"The concern is that agencies are removing information under the guise of national security that poses little or no security hazard," says Steven Aftergood, who directs the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy in Washington, D.C. "Instead, it is information that might be inconvenient to the agency. And that is not a legitimate position. It is actually rather insulting to the public."
The blanket removal of so much data, Aftergood says, makes the Corps' move even more questionable. "The disingenuousness of their position is clear from the fact that they are not selectively removing information, rather they're removing a whole category of documents. It may be conceivable that there are one, or 10, or 30 documents that raise security issues and might be properly withdrawn, but that's not what they have done. Instead they have eliminated an entire channel of public access."