DOD retreats on Web

In hastening to pull down information posted on the
Internet, the Defense Department appears to be reacting to threats not to information
security but to the physical security of assets and people.

The brass fears that bad guys will tap into the aggregate of information—base
maps, building layouts, weapons locations and personnel addresses—to attack people
and places. It reminds me of the oft-stated speculation that sufficient information is
available online to build a nuclear bomb.

Part of the uneasiness likely stems from the fact that no one knows how many Web sites
DOD’s far-flung operations run or precisely what’s on them. The department
estimates that it has at least 1,000 sites.

So, not surprisingly, a policy limiting Web postings came down late last month from
deputy Defense secretary John Hamre. He directed DOD webmasters to scrub such things as
tactical information and personnel identification numbers.

DOD is widening the umbrella known as sensitive but unclassified information to include
material available on the Web.

The Army reacted swiftly to the Hamre memo, shutting down its Web sites on Friday,
Sept. 25. The service has been gradually reopening sites after removing information that
it deemed a national security risk.

DOD must approach this policy carefully to avoid the wholesale destruction of its Web
pages. Why? Because a lot of Defense information is useful and should be accessible to the
public. As DOD organizations ponder what to ditch, they need to make sure they keep asking
whether particular pieces of information are supposed to be available.

In other words, is DOD simply making some information harder to get, returning
accessibility to the pre-Web days? If that’s the case, it hardly seems like a
deterrent to someone of ill will. Lack of an Internet connection at his shack didn’t
stop the Unabomber. And if the department intends to take available data and abruptly
classify it, it will face all sorts of legal challenges.

DOD should also consider the more subtle implication of its new Web policy. By
withdrawing too far, the department risks alienating an important source of public
support: millions of people who are genuinely interested in how DOD spends hundreds of
billions of tax dollars.

Kooks and nuts will always be out there, and the government mustn’t let fear force
it to roll the clock back.

Thomas R. Temin

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