Feds Hide Snafus Behind Cloak of National Security

Federal agencies are using secrecy rules developed after the 9/11 attacks to hide embarrassing or controversial reports and data that the federal government once routinely made public.

Environmental groups, scientific organizations and animal-rights advocates are complaining about increasing difficulties in obtaining information on what government inspectors are finding about worker safety at nuclear power plants, toxic releases at chemical plants, or tests on live animals in scientific laboratories.

In February 2002, the U.S. Agriculture Department removed from its Web site annual reports on how scientific laboratories are treating animals during experiments. The department said it wanted to see whether the reports contained “homeland security information.”

Martin Stephens, vice president for animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States, said the Justice Department ruled that the material the government is required to gather under the Animal Welfare Act doesn’t involve security concerns, but the Agriculture Department has refused to release any recent reports or put the material back online.

“It’s pretty much the only source of this information,” Stephens said. “Without these documents, we are in the dark about what’s going on.”

He said the department’s surveys reflect the prevalence of live testing on animals in scientific laboratories and require documentation for the rationale for withholding pain medication when tests are conducted.

The government reports have also been used to document that some universities that publicly deny they are involved in live animal testing are experimenting with animals in their laboratories.

The Humane Society filed suit this week seeking to obtain the documents. Agriculture Department spokesman Jim Rogers said he could not respond to questions on the issue because the matter is being litigated.

Michele Boyd, legislative director for the watchdog group Public Citizen, said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission removed data on worker safety issues and health effects for a proposed Louisiana Energy Services nuclear facility in southeastern New Mexico.

“What health and worker safety information would be of interest to terrorists?” Boyd asked. She said workers at the plant and neighbors around it deserve to know what dangers they are facing.

“We scream about it, and they don’t particularly care,” Boyd said.

The agency initially posted information from an environmental impact statement on its Web site, but then withdrew some materials in December that discussed the potentially lethal consequences of accidents.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson joined activists in protesting the withdrawal of the documents, saying it makes it impossible for citizens to make informed decisions about the facility.

Many other agencies are using the post 9/11 crack down to keep secret data that once was public:

_ The Environmental Protection Agency is no longer releasing the information it gathers when chemical plants dump toxic substances.

_ The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is refusing to release publicly documents that it prepared in secret on the dangers of liquefied natural gas terminals under construction along America’s coastlines. The commission claims the material is “critical energy infrastructure information.”

_ Despite bitter complaints from the nation’s mayors, the Homeland Security Department won’t tell police and fire departments when dangerous shipments of hazardous materials move through their jurisdictions. South Carolina authorities weren’t alerted to the presence of a Norfolk and Southern Railroad tanker carrying chlorine until it exploded on a railroad siding, killing nine people. There are 90,000 shipments by rail of chlorine each year, and the federal government cites the need to keep the information from terrorists as justification for secrecy.

_ The Justice Department had been withholding details of what’s been happening in secret proceedings against immigrants since 9/11. After losing a lawsuit over the issue, the department presented the People for the American Way Foundation with a $373,000 bill this week for rounding up documents on the cases.

A study by the Rand Corp. last year of the 36 Web sites and more than 600 public data bases shut down after 9/11 concluded government efforts to censor information was ill-advised and ineffective. Terrorists would not be interested in much of the information and, in any event, it could be obtained elsewhere in textbooks, trade journals or through non-government sites, the study concluded.

But government secrecy is expanding. The Department of Homeland Security issued regulations last June telling government agencies they no longer need to release environmental impact statements, and secrecy rules are being applied not only to documents the government gathers, but also to information the government finances.

The Council on Government Relations, representing the nation’s university system, protests that scientists are facing unprecedented new rules written into research contracts requiring them to suppress sensitive but unclassified materials and also to receive special approval if foreigners are involved in the government-financed research.

Albert Teich, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that unlike classified research for which there are written rules, there are no firm guidelines on how to handle sensitive but unclassified information. In a December 2004 report, the Congressional Research Service found the way government agencies handle sensitive but unclassified materials differs widely across the government.

“This is a gray area,” he said. He worries the bureaucracy is treating the material over-cautiously to avoid recriminations if U.S. government documents later show up in a cave in Afghanistan.

Teich said tightly applied rules prevent necessary scientific exchange, and a preoccupation with secrecy hurts America’s long-term economic health.

“The whole scientific enterprise moves forward on the free exchange of ideas and information,” he said. “We could be shooting ourselves in the foot if we do anything that slows down this sort of research.”

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)SHNS.com)