from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
November 13, 2001


In a startling plea for official censorship, Amy E. Smithson of the Henry L. Stimson Center last week urged the government to "close down" web sites run by environmental organizations if they publish information about hazardous materials in local communities around the country since such information could be used by terrorists.

"In this day and age, Washington can no longer afford to hand any interested individual a road map to the chemical calamities they could cause with the toxic materials located in communities nationwide," Smithson testified at a House Transportation subcommittee hearing last week on "Right to Know After September 11th." The hearing examined the policies governing public disclosure of chemical hazards at various industrial facilities.

In particular, Smithson said, the government must clamp down on those environmental organizations that have published information on hazardous material inventories and accident consequences, including information that has now been withdrawn from government web sites.

"Immediately, these interest groups must cease and desist activities that make data on hazardous materials facilities available to widespread public view, removing this data from their websites," she said.

"Failing their voluntary cooperation, the US government should take swift steps to close down the pertinent segments of these organizations' websites and take legal steps to prohibit them from distributing this data in the future on the Internet or by other means," Smithson instructed.

Dr. Smithson has been widely quoted for her expertise and opinions concerning chemical and biological weapons policy. The Henry L. Stimson Center is a mainstream policy research and advocacy organization whose declared motto is "Practical steps to ideal solutions." But the new censorship proposal hardly fits that description.

Smithson's testimony on this point invited disbelief because she blithely made several assumptions that are questionable or simply incorrect, including: (a) there is no countervailing benefit to the independent publication of information about hazardous materials; (b) it is possible for the government to effectively suppress information that has been privately published on the web; and (c) it would be legally and constitutionally permissible to attempt to do so.

An opposing view was presented at the hearing by environmentalist Jeremiah Baumann of the advocacy organization US PIRG.

"The right to know is a proven tool for increasing public safety," he argued. "Choosing restrictions on the public's right to know about hazards in communities, rather than actually reducing those hazards, can hurt safety rather than help it."

Speaking pragmatically, Elaine Stanley of the Environmental Protection Agency outlined the four criteria the EPA has developed for deciding what to publish and what to remove from the Agency's web site.

All of the prepared testimony from the November 8 hearing on Right to Know After September 11th may be found here:


In something of a man-bites-dog story, a public interest group has called upon a government agency to remove certain information from the agency's web site.

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) said it was "irresponsible" for the Department of Energy to publish "detailed maps and descriptions" of various nuclear weapons facilities on the web.

"Though POGO has worked tirelessly to promote public access to government information, in this instance we feel that access to this information serves no public good," said Danielle Brian, POGO's Executive Director.

Last week, the DOE removed the most sensitive of the cited documents, POGO said.

See "Energy pulls sensitive nuclear information from the Web" by Joshua Dean in Government Executive:


As evidenced above, the debate over when public information becomes a threat is being enacted with increasing urgency since September 11 with no clear resolution in sight.

Recently, physicist and problem solver extraordinaire Richard L. Garwin authored an article in the New York Review of Books (11/01/01) on "The Many Threats of Terror," sketching out the potential scope of terrorism as a step towards identifying appropriate means of protection:

For his trouble, he earned a scolding from jazz critic and essayist Stanley Crouch, who suggested that Garwin had carelessly provided a roadmap for future terrorists.

"It seems disgustingly remarkable that those enemies within our borders, when brainstorming in search of the best ways to murder as many civilians as possible, need only turn to ... articles like Garwin's to replenish their strategies of mass assassination," Mr. Crouch wrote in a letter to the editor of the New York Review (11/29/01, not currently online).

This is a harsh judgment, and there is no evidence that public discussion of potential threats has contributed to terrorism. But it is not unreasonable to worry that it could.

At the same time, it seems probable that most of the weaknesses that terrorists could hypothetically exploit will never be corrected if they cannot be publicly identified.

The basic dilemma was stated by Richard Garwin in his published reply to Stanley Crouch's complaint:

"If [Mr. Crouch] could find some way to solve such problems without alerting people to their existence," Garwin wrote, "I would certainly prefer that approach. But he is asking the impossible."


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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