Federal government pulling back from the Web

Previously available government information is disappearing from the Web. Is that a requirement of antiterrorism or part of the Bush Administration's preference for secrecy?
Written by ZDNet UK, Contributor on

Government information is disappearing from the public Web. That, says Aliya Sternstein in this week's Federal Computer Week, is one thing government officials and public critics can agree on. As to whether this is a good, necessary thing or a bad, unnecessary thing, there is no end of contention.

While there's general agreement that some documents that were online - such as government building floorplans - provided too much information to potential terrorists, there has been a widespread pullback, often with no national security rationale.

The Defense Department pulled the Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin journal, without any explanation, [The Federation of Scientists' Steven] Aftergood said. The journal, available to the public in hard copy from the Government Printing Office, is now accessible online only to the military. Government officials did not offer a specific reason for removing the journal from the Internet. “Various commands have encouraged their publications to be posted on [Army Knowledge Online] (AKO) for no other reason than Army Knowledge Online is a portal that is accessible to all soldiers wherever they are,” said Lt. Col. Carl Ey, an Army spokesman. “There is no particular security reason. Bottom line is the Army developed AKO as a tool for soldiers, and if your intended audience is the soldier, you should post on AKO.”

Aftergood said putting up information barriers, such as those examples, can jeopardize governmentwide operations. “The outstanding lesson of the investigations into [the 2001 terrorist attacks] was the need to improve information sharing and dissemination,” he said. “The tendency to impose new restrictions on information publication goes in exactly the opposite direction. It’s against the grain of where technology and good public policy are trying to take us.”

The pullback started with a vague notice to agencies to scrub Web sites of sensitive information.

In response to the ambiguous order, agencies created secret domains of information, protecting much more information than just content with national security implications, critics say. Enormous quantities of unclassified records are now out of public view, they say, adding that since 2001, administration officials have done little to reverse the consequences of that memo.

A conference committee report on the 2006 Homeland Security Appropriations Act calls for agencies to designate an official who would be responsible for marking documents as Sensitive Security Information and defining the criteria for that designation. The designation covers a broad range of transportation security information that is exempt by law from public disclosure.

The pullback continues to have real-life implications, perhaps not unintentional, as government contracts are shielded from the light of public scrutiny.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency did not make Hurricane Katrina recovery contracts easily accessible online. Many organizations, including the American Library Association, the National Coalition for History, OMB Watch and People for the American Way, petitioned administration officials to publish the Katrina contracts in a centralized, searchable database.

In December 2005, the petitioners sent a letter requesting that the contracts be published on the Internet as soon as officials sign documents, approve checks or disburse money. The administration’s efforts to post the contracts have been slow and irregular thus far, OMB Watch officials said, adding that they plan to send another letter.

“The public’s trust that the government is ready for the next disaster is definitely shaken,” said Rick Blum, director of the Freedom of Information Project at OMB Watch. “I hope this is a small step to help us understand what is happening and prevent the wasting of taxpayer dollars. [If the contracts are posted online], you’re going to get a whole world of auditors looking at this and asking questions, and that’s we need right now.”




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