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Politics Mondays: Operation Info-Scrub by Bill Berkowitz

With a late March flick of a pen -- an action that drew less than 200 words from the Associated Press -- President Bush signed an executive order "delay[ing] the release of millions of historical documents for more than three years and make it easier to reclassify information considered damaging to national security," AP reported. The 25-page executive order, signed three weeks prior to an April 17 deadline that would have lifted the veil from millions of documents 25 years old or older, served as another example of the administration's predilection for secrecy.

Not so coincidentally "The reclassification provision applies to documents between 10 and 25 years old, which would include periods in which Bush's father, George Bush, served as president and vice-president."

With phase one of the invasion of Iraq just about over, and the country struggling to recover from Saddam Hussein's regime and the U.S. bombing campaign, it might be a little difficult to be concerned about dusty historical records. The administration's March action, however, is congruent with a number of other decisions it has made regarding access to both historical and current information. These actions should be viewed in a larger context: the systematic chipping away at the publics' right to know.

Post-9/11 cleansing

Immediately after 9/11, information-scrubbing became the order of the day at a number of government agencies. A March 2002 memo by the president's Chief of Staff Andrew Card titled "Guidance on Homeland Security Information Issued," was sent to the heads of all federal departments and agencies. Agency heads were reminded of their "obligation to safeguard Government records regarding weapons of mass destruction." They were told to review "government information... regarding weapons of mass destruction, as well as other information that could be misused to harm the security of our nation and the safety of our people."

According to OMB Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based government watchdog group, an attached "guidance" suggested that agencies review "its classified, reclassified and declassified information," and to be aware of a new type of information called "sensitive but unclassified." The "guidance" stated that "the need to protect such sensitive information from inappropriate disclosure should be carefully considered, on a case-by-case basis," and that Freedom of Information Act requests should also be considered under these guidelines.

As a result of this review a substantial amount of information was removed from the Web sites of a number of agencies, including the Agency for Toxics and Disease Registry, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Geological Survey. (For examples of what was cleansed, see "Access to Government Information Post September 11th".)

Post 9/11 info-cleansing has gone beyond screening information that might be of use to terrorists. Pierre Tristam, an editorial writer for the Daytona Beach News-Journal, recently pointed out that "the Department of Energy has removed environmental impact statements informing local communities about the potential dangers posed by nuclear plants. It has ordered research arms such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory to delete entire databases from public access because it would have taken too long to filter and delete only sensitive information."

Political info-scrubbing

While the administration hasn't advocated the outright closure of government Web sites, it has taken to removing information for strictly political reasons. Information conflicting with administration domestic policy, raising questions about the backgrounds of government officials, or that is objectionable to the president's conservative constituents has been reviewed, revised or removed altogether.

William Matthews reported in the November 2002 issue of Federal Computer Week that the Department of Health and Human Services had removed "valuable scientific information" regarding condoms, HIV and abortion "from some of their Web sites." Adam Clymer's follow-up piece in the New York Times reported two specific changes: The Web site at the National Cancer Institute which "used to say... that the best studies showed 'no association between abortion and breast cancer,' now says the evidence is inconclusive." At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a fact sheet on its Web site "used to say studies showed that education about condom use did not lead to earlier or increased sexual activity. That statement, which contradicts the view of "abstinence only" advocates, is omitted from a revised version of the page."

In May 2001 Thomas White was named Secretary of the Army. At the time, Russ Kick, the creator of the invaluable Memory Hole Web site, observed that the Secretary's "official biography contained two paragraphs... detailing his experience as a high-level executive at Enron." In an e-mail exchange, Kirk wrote that "sometime after the energy giant collapsed," White's biography was altered. "His 11 years as a bigshot at Enron suddenly were worth only a sentence, which was put at the very end of his bio, as if an afterthought."

These examples pale next to the mother of all information-cleansing plans proposed for, and currently stalled at, the Department of Education. In mid-September 2002, an Education Week story by Michelle R. Davis titled "No URL Left Behind? -- Web Scrub Raises Concerns," outlined the department's plan to "overhaul" its Web site in order "to make it easier to use and to remove outdated data -- and ensure that material on the site meshes with the Bush administration's political philosophy."

The site redesign was aimed at removing "thousands of files, many of them old and inaccessible from the site's home page."

In May 2001, senior staff members and the Web site office received a directive, titled "Criteria and Process for Removing Old Content from" which laid out how the changes would occur. "Some of the problems with the site, according to the memo," Davis wrote, "include difficulties with navigation, mediocre graphics, and information that is either outdated or 'does not reflect the priorities, philosophies, or goals of the present administration.'"

The Department, which established its Internet presence in March 1994, has grown to include more than 50,000 files and receives an average 84,000 visits a day, Davis writes. An additional site devoted to President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" initiative has also recently been established.

"This is somewhat new and uncharted territory," John P. Bailey, the department's director of education technology and a Bush appointee who is overseeing the current project, told Davis. "Our goal is to make as much information as possible current and relevant, while keeping that historical data and perspective."

A coalition of 14 national organizations, including the American Library Association, the National Education Association, the National Knowledge Industry Association, the Social Work Association of America, the American Sociological Association and others quickly responded, expressing concern in an October 2001 letter to the Department.

The letter read in part: "One of our primary concerns centers on the fate of information scheduled to be removed from your publicly accessible Web site....[W]e would like to know what steps the Department is taking to preserve information and provide the easiest possible permanent public access to any materials that are removed?

"Secondly, we are equally concerned with any actions that would remove from access research, data, and other digests of information that otherwise have been publicly available, irrespective of administrations, by the Department of Education.

"Finally, we are concerned about the role of educational researchers, related social and behavioral scientists, librarians, those with expertise in data dissemination and preservation, and other public stakeholders in the development of any plan to access materials on the Department's Web site. Information available through the U. S. Department of Education Web site is used by a wide variety of professionals, including educators, scholars, public decision makers, and the public more broadly, and they should be consulted throughout this process. We urge you to hold meetings with them and listen to their concerns and ideas."

Two months later, Secretary of Education Rod Paige responded saying that he was committed to citizens having "easy access to the most relevant, current & useful information concerning current educational programs & initiatives while also being sensitive to maintaining easily accessible historical archives."

Thanks to determination of right-to-know advocates, Patrice McDermott, the Assistant Director of the Office of Government Relations at the American Library Association, told me that the scrubbing project appears to be on hold. The Memory Hole's Russ Kick said that he had not "heard any more about the scrubbing of the site." Although he hadn't fully compared his "archived version of the site to the current one, at this point I can't see anything obviously missing," Kick wrote in an e-mail. But as Sandi Wurtz, a Government Relations Associate at the American Educational Research Association, pointed out, "This is an issue that we feel requires continual monitoring to assure that all documents are retained."

Information management for the 21st century

Administrations prior to President Clintons' were faced with the task of warehousing acres of file-filled banker boxes. Managing information on government Web sites is a relatively new and challenging enterprise. The Clinton Administration was the first to extensively use the Web, and now the Bush Administration has the first opportunity to revise and re-design existing government sites.

According to Education Week's Michelle Davis, "There are few laws governing government Web sites and what they must archive. The National Archives and Records Administration issued a [draft] guidance on managing Web records in April [2001], saying agency Web pages 'meet the definition of a federal record and therefore must be managed as such.'"

When a record is scheduled for removal from a Web site, the government needs to should maintain "permanent public access" to them, McDermott said. "Information needs to be available and accessible to the public, and those records that are removed from Web sites need to be stored in a manner that they can be found and be used."

Team Bush's penchant for secrecy makes it imperative that right-to-know advocates be vigilant in monitoring the administration's Internet operations. Even in a time of war, the government cannot be allowed to abandon one of its essential responsibilities -- the preservation and protection of the public's right-to-know.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right. Mr. Berkowitz can be reached via e-mail at:

Monday, April 21, 2003

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