Some feds welcome order to scrub Web

Some feds welcome order to scrub Web

FAA's Arthur Pyster says the memo only reinforces what the agency was doing already.

Freedom of information advocates have raised concerns about a recent memo from the Bush administration directing federal agencies to scrub their Web sites of sensitive data that could help terrorists.

But several agency officials welcomed the memo, which they consider additional guidance in their effort to prevent potentially dangerous information from falling into the wrong hands.

'The memo helps give us a clear idea in the process of review, but does not alter the process that has been going on,' said Alfonso Aguilar, an Energy Department spokesman. He said Energy since Sept. 11 has continuously examined the information it posts on the Web.

The memo, sent March 19 by Andrew Card, the president's chief of staff, orders executive department heads to immediately remove any sensitive information regarding weapons of mass destruction.

'Government information, regardless of its age, that could reasonably be expected to assist in the development or use of weapons of mass destruction, including information about the current locations of stockpiles of nuclear materials that could be exploited for use in such weapons, should not be disclosed inappropriately,' Card wrote.

Drafted by the Justice Department's Office of Information and Privacy, the memo directs agencies to classify or reclassify information that could be used in the development of weapons of mass destruction and also examine unclassified information.

Privacy concerns

Most agencies have been scanning their sites since Sept. 11 and have removed thousands of documents from the Web, but some advocates for freedom of information have raised fresh concerns about the memo.

Steven Aftergood, who directs the government secrecy project of the Washington nonprofit Federation of American Scientists, said the memo fails to define what is sensitive information.

'It's bad policy because it gives agencies unilateral discretion to adopt their own information policy,' he said. 'What we may see is that wholesale information is being removed from the Web sites.'

He pointed out that agencies have an interest in withholding information from the public.

'They can withhold information to evade oversight and protect controversial programs from public awareness,' Aftergood said. 'Agencies can consider such information as sensitive and withhold it. Public access will suffer.'

The memo was prompted by a recent New York Times article listing federal agencies that continue to post chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear information online, according to a Defense Department official.

Kurt Molholm, administrator of the Defense Technical Information Center within the Defense Information Systems Agency, said the article named DTIC as an agency that posted information that could be harmful to the United States. DTIC has pulled 6,600 documents, mostly old studies that were released because they were declassified, from its Web site and is reviewing them.

'There were studies that talked about germ warfare manuals,' Molholm said. 'Some of them are citations and may not be documents.'

Gary D. Bass, executive director of OMBWatch, a nonprofit research group in Washington that monitors the Office of Management and Budget, said the memo indicates that 'we are moving from a right to know to a need to know, where the public needs to justify why it needs information.'

But for most agencies, it's business as usual.

Arthur Pyster, deputy CIO of the Federal Aviation Administration, said, 'the memo is not news to us. We have been working with sensitive data since 9-11.'

For instance, the agency has already removed technical specifications of air traffic control systems.

FAA is reviewing information on its Web sites in two ways, he said.

Each Web page is being analyzed separately, and bits of information on different pages are compiled to see if they make up sensitive information, Pyster said.

The reviewers will present their findings to the FAA's CIO, Daniel J. Mehan, this month, after which the agency will decide what information to remove.

Molholm said leaders in the Defense Department were expected to meet last week to discuss implementation of Card's memo throughout DOD.

DTIC serves as the central repository for scientific and technical information for DOD. Molholm said he expects most of the pulled documents to be reposted at a later date.

Alica Harrison, press secretary at the Agriculture Department, said that after Sept. 11 the department scanned its sites and removed information it considered sensitive.

For instance, information on electricity, housing plans and locations of power plants and rural utilities were removed.

'We have been working on this for the last six months, and the majority of the sensitive information has been removed, but the memo gives us more direction,' she said.

The department plans to re-evaluate information on all its Web sites and make a decision with the Office of Homeland Security on removing any information.

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