Official Secrets

Article excerpt

Is the Bush administration using terrorism fears to shield government-and business-from public view?

People who live near chemical plants can no longer go online and find out which hazardous materials are stored near their home. Air travelers can no longer see Federal Aviation Administration records on airport-- security violations. Journalists and elected officials no longer have access to a string of reports pinpointing weaknesses in the nation's antiterrorism defenses.

When the federal government scrambled to remove vast amounts of information from official libraries and websites in the wake of September 11, most assumed that access would be restored after officials had a chance to carefully evaluate security risks. But instead, many observers now say, the administration has used a string of laws and executive orders to reverse a decades-long trend toward government openness. The new measures are so broad, critics warn, it's impossible to say whether officials are protecting national security or simply expanding their power to operate without public scrutiny. An iron veil is descending over the executive branch," warns Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform.

The first of the new secrecy measures was rushed through Congress in October 2001 as part of the USA Patriot Act, which gave law-- enforcement agencies the authority to search homes and businesses without a warrant (a practice known as "sneak and peek") and to secretly track an individual's Internet surfing, library records, and book purchases. When the House Judiciary Committee asked last June how many times the FBI had used each of the new powers-many of which were taken away from the bureau in the past because of abuses-the Justice Department said that information was classified. "Their attitude seems to be that even Congress isn't entitled to know how they're using the authority that Congress gave them," says outgoing Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.).

The push toward secrecy has extended far beyond law enforcement. Under a new policy restricting access to "sensitive but unclassified" information, agencies have made it harder for the public to see records that are often used by health and safety advocates and that industry has long sought to keep secret. The EPA, for instance, now limits access to the "risk management plans" that companies must file to inform communities what is being done to prevent toxic chemical accidents, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has withdrawn information on hazardous materials stored at power plants.

In some cases, officials are withholding information that could embarrass government agencies or businesses. Last summer, the Department of Agriculture tried to suppress a National Academy of Sciences study that revealed no government secrets but warned that terrorism using foreign pests or pathogens could "pose a major threat to U.S. agriculture." (The academy went ahead and published the report on its own. …