Researchers stymied by block on government documents

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

INDIANAPOLIS -- Some scientists are running into a major post-Sept. 11 stumbling block: Federal restrictions have eliminated access to information vital to their studies.

The government has cut Internet links, stripped information from agency Web sites and even required federal librarians to destroy a CD-ROM on public water supplies. Researchers worry that the rush to protect national security will hurt their efforts and the public.

"It can be so expensive to engage in a public dialogue under these conditions of secrecy," said Greg Mello, head of the environmental watchdog group Los Alamos Study Group.

The White House in March provided government agencies with a guide to help them review information that could be "misused to harm the security of our nation and the safety of our people."

The memo was intended to remind agencies to examine security issues regarding government documents, said Laura Kimberly, associate director for policy with the federal Information Security Oversight Office.

The result, say experts, has been an information clampdown.

The government watchdog group OMB Watch has sent Freedom of Information Act requests to federal agencies asking what information was removed from Web sites because of the attacks.

A year ago, government librarians received a letter telling them to destroy copies of a U.S. Geological Survey CD-ROM about public water resources. The agency decided the CD-ROM had information that could be used to damage the nation's water supply, said Katherine Lins, science adviser for water information at the Geological Survey.

The request was the only one depository libraries received to take information off the shelves over security concerns. But librarians also fear a chilling effect on government Web sites.

"It's sort of the national history that's being withdrawn," said Andrea Sevetson, former head of government information at the University of California at Berkeley. She fears people won't post information at government Web sites "because they don't want to get in trouble."

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