FC: Stimson Center demands gvt censorship of chemical-data websites

From: Declan McCullagh (declanat_private)
Date: Tue Nov 13 2001 - 08:57:21 PST

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    [This is from Steven Aftergood's Secrecy News, published by the
    Federation of American Scientists and available here: 
    http://www.fas.org/sgp/news/secrecy/index.html Amy Smithson's bio is here 
    (alas, it lacks an email address for her): 
    http://www.stimson.org/stimson/smithson.htm I invite her or the center to 
    reply. --Declan]
    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    that has now been withdrawn from government web sites.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
    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
    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."
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