May 4, 2009 -- While watchdog groups have hailed President Barack Obama's moves towards greater government openness, millions of bytes of once-public government data have yet to be returned to the Internet after being removed during post-9/11 security efforts.
Unclassified military after-action reports, an FAA database of enforcement actions against flight personnel, pipeline mapping data – the Bush administration removed these and many other government resources from the Web after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, amid fears that terrorists might find information there to help devise future attacks against the United States.
"I think most of the removals were probably performed in good faith," said Steven Aftergood, whose Project on Government Secrecy tracks such issues at the Federation of American Scientists. "It's now clear that kind of secrecy does not serve us well. . . but the pendulum has not yet swung back."
"To my memory, there was no document, no database. . . that was taken down that shouldn't be made publicly available," said Gary Bass, executive director of the DC-based nonpartisan OMBWatch. His group in 2005 attempted to compile a list of once-public information sources that the government had removed following the 9/11 attacks.
Since the post-9/11 wave of secrecy, some agencies have attempted to make partial information available to the public, or have reversed their initial decisions to remove data.
The National Pipeline Mapping System, for instance, allows public access, but does not give non-government users detailed information. "Regular citizens wouldn't necessarily need to know" things like exact pipeline diameters or specific locations, said Damon Hill of the Department of Transportation, which maintains the database. Hill said he was not aware of any complaints from the public since the restrictions were put in place several years ago.
Los Alamos National Laboratory, which conducts a variety of top-secret research for the Department of Energy, said it had reconsidered its decision to remove a library of unclassified technical reports from its Web site, and has reposted those documents "intended for public release only."
Unclassified After-Action Reports
Others have stuck to their guns. The Center for Army Lessons Learned in Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., will keep offline a collection of unclassified after-action reports and reviews of recent military conflicts. "That falls under the umbrella of operational security," said Lt. Col. Robert Whetstone, who responded to an inquiry about the center. "The proliferation of the Information Age and all that, and we know our adversaries are using the Internet," led the center to take down the materials. There has been no move to reconsider that decision, Whetstone said.
The White House did not respond with comment for this story. Obama has announced plans for an Open Government Directive, which will direct government offices to take "specific actions" towards openness. Insiders say the directive could include steps that would help reverse the post-9/11 moves to secrecy.
"I think change is in the wind," said Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy.