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In the name of national security

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh explains why the government's quietly wiping previously posted information off of federal Web sites.

Nobody likes to be criticized in public, especially all those politicians in Washington, D.C., who fervently hope to be re-elected.

But the Bush administration has taken the desire to avoid critical commentary to an extreme. In incident after troubling incident, federal agencies have been quietly censoring information that previously had been available on their Web sites and otherwise curbing public oversight.

About a week ago, the U.S. Army surreptitiously pulled the plug on one of its more popular Web sites, call.army.mil, after The Washington Post wrote about a report that had been posted on it.

The Post's October 25 article said "the U.S. military intelligence gathering operation in Iraq is being undercut by a series of problems in using technology, training intelligence specialists and managing them in the field," citing the report prepared by the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The report, which the Post had the foresight to mirror on its own Web site, talked about the "poor quality" of mission planning and "marginally effective" training for certain reserve troops.

The report was not classified. It was merely a sober analysis of the Army's problems in Iraq. It had the ring of truth to it, unlike Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, which he used to blandly reassure viewers. "We can win this war. We will win this war," he said.

This is not an isolated example. In the two years since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration has systematically reduced the amount of information available to the public, which in turn has made government officials less accountable to taxpayers. Attorney General John Ashcroft set the tone in an Oct. 12, 2001, memo that urged agencies to withhold information from requests that were made under the Freedom of Information Act. Then, in January, Rumsfeld claimed that too much data was popping up on military Web sites. Citing al-Qaida, Rumsfeld warned that "one must conclude our enemies' access (to Department of Defense) Web sites on a regular basis."

In the last two years, though, the government has extended secrecy far beyond what recent predecessors have dared.
Rumsfeld's directive explains why, a few weeks ago, another part of the Pentagon decided to shroud its actions in secrecy. Until recently, the Web site for the Defense Science Board--an obscure but influential advisory body that influences military policy and had a budget of $3.6 million a year--had listed the board's membership.

Today, the board's Web site still includes links to "members" and "task force members," but one link requires a password, and the other link returns a "404: file not found" error. What makes this bureaucratic pusillanimity particularly noteworthy is that the full membership list remains available on a second government Web site the General Services Administration runs.

As with the now-unavailable Army site, national security was hardly at risk. The board members include a typical cross section of organizations that receive fat checks for military work, including representatives of Northrop Grumman, Sandia National Laboratory, General Dynamics, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory. The only reasonable explanation for the disappearing information is to make it harder for the public and journalists to follow trails of money and influence.

Probably the most blatant example of bureaucrats who hope to duck criticism came about a year ago, when the military tried to quell public concern about the now-defunct Total Information Awareness project through the simple expedient of deleting files from the Web.

First, biographical information about TIA project leaders, including retired Adm. John Poindexter, disappeared. Then the TIA site shrank even more, with the slogan and logo for the TIA project--a Masonic pyramid that eyeballs the globe--vanishing, a highly unusual move for any government agency. Finally, a few weeks later, a diagram that explains the TIA project was erased.

Some reason for optimism
Once in a while, though, the government can be shamed into backing down.

About a month ago, the Defense Department blocked public access to a Web site that lists internal regulations. Examples include "Prevention of Oil Pollution From Ships" and "Enforcement of the State Traffic Laws on (Defense Department) Installations."

No reason for the block was given. But after the Associated Press ran an article about it and TheMemoryHole.org of the site, the Pentagon relented and restored public access to the regulations. Accelerating that restoration was a strong legal argument that the regulations must be published and available to the public.

Then there's the White House, with its own form of history revisionism. On Sept. 24, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice gave a briefing to the press on the condition that she be identified only as a "senior administration official," a common practice in Washington. The was posted to the Whitehouse.gov site.

One reporter, however, had addressed her as "Dr. Rice," a statement the White House faithfully included in the posted transcript. By the next morning, those words had disappeared from the White House's Web site.

It turns out that the Federation of American Scientists was suing the CIA to learn the dollar size of the U.S. intelligence budget.
In July, the Department of Energy surreptitiously deleted from its Web site documents that relate to its 2004 budget request. If you look at the HTML source code today, you'll see this note: "7/28/03 removed per J. Campbell request," a reference to James Campbell, the department's acting chief financial officer.

It turns out that the Federation of American Scientists was suing the CIA to learn the dollar size of the U.S. intelligence budget (countries such as United Kingdom, Canada, and the Netherlands routinely disclose theirs). In its litigation, the Washington-based nonprofit group reminded the judge that the Energy Department is part of the intelligence community, and its budgets were published.

"Shortly afterward, the intelligence budget data was removed from the (Energy Department Web) site," wrote Steven Aftergood, head of the group's Project on Government Secrecy. An indomitable open-government warrior, Aftergood verified that the deleted information was not classified and then promptly on his own Web site. (Aftergood, incidentally, was the first to document and publicize many of these incidents mentioned in this column.)

Every administration does this to some extent. In 1998, while working for Time Inc., I attended a meeting of the President's Export Council Subcommittee on Encryption and was kicked out of the room when a National Security Agency official wanted to brief subcommittee members in secret. Subcommittee members who heard the secret briefing later told me that limiting press coverage, not preserving national security, was the real reason the chairman closed the meeting.

In the last two years, though, the government has extended secrecy far beyond what recent predecessors have dared. There are legitimate reasons for secrecy, but using the excuse of terrorist attacks to shield officials from embarrassment and critical scrutiny is unconscionable. The public deserves better.