W A S H I N G T O N, Oct. 15, 2001 -- Key details about secure bunkers used by President Bush and Vice President Cheney are available on the Internet, ABCNEWS has learned.
The locations and layout of presidential and military command centers — even information about their water supply — are accessible worldwide at the click of a mouse. Experts say some of the information should be classified.
Former CIA Director James Woolsey said he didn't know such details were available on the Internet. "I had absolutely no idea they were on the Web — plans of facilities and the like," Woolsey said. "That's just crazy."
The Web sites were not created by America's enemies — they were designed by nonprofit groups, Cold War buffs and even the government itself.
Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States, some of the Web pages have been removed, but others remain.
The Federation of American Scientists, a group critical of government secrecy, has now taken down about 200 Web pages that contained sensitive information about the White House and other facilities.
"As horrendous as government abuse of secrecy authority can be, it utterly pales in comparison to the reality of thousands of dead Americans," said Steven Aftergood, director of the group's government secrecy project.
"In those cases where there is a potential of a new vulnerability being created, we have no compunction about saying we're taking this offline at least until military conflict is over," he said.
A similar reassessment is taking place across government agencies. Sites that contain information that could be exploited by terrorists are being modified, put behind firewalls or shut down altogether.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has shut down its Web site, which included data on nuclear plant designs. The commission said the site was pulled from public access because it provided sensitive information that could be used in a terrorist attack on U.S. nuclear plants.
The Environmental Protection Agency site no longer provides information about chemical plants' risk-management plans. It took down information on hazards at plants around the country. Time magazine reported Sunday that Mohamed Atta, the alleged ringleader of the Sept. 11 hijackings, flew over chemical plants in Tennessee last spring and asked a local pilot what the pilot described as "crazy questions" about the facilities.
The Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety recently restricted access to the National Pipeline Mapping System, which shows the locations of natural gas pipelines and other data, including information on where pipeline leaks might put drinking water at risk.
An Army Corps of Engineers Web site that contained information about an underground military command center near Washington was moved behind a firewall after the Sept. 11 attacks, a spokeswoman confirmed. Access now requires a user name and password.
Some public interest groups have expressed concern about the purging, arguing the information is of little use to terrorists, but has great value to citizens concerned about the safety of industrial activities in their communities.
"By taking information offline, we're basically making the American public less informed: less informed about how their money is being spent, less informed about environmental hazards in their communities. The terrorists are winning by making information less available," said John Pike of Globalsecurity.org, a watchdog organization focusing on national security policy.
Pike said he has refused requests from low-level military officials to pull data from his site that he had gathered from military Web sites before Sept. 11. "We had e-mail from a couple of Army installations asking us to take a couple of paragraphs about their facilities offline. We looked at that information," Pike said. "Apart from demonstrating the fact that these facilities exist, there was nothing that would help a terrorist planning an attack."
Google, one of the largest Internet search engines and Web archives, told ABCNEWS that it has begun to remove its copies of sites that could pose a security threat.
"It was a combination of some pro-active actions and checking media reports," said Google spokeswoman Cindy McCaffrey.
Google stores, or "caches," the text of Web sites, making it available even when the original site is modified or taken down. That's a valuable service for Web surfers, but another potential source of information for terrorists.
McCaffrey said she was not aware of the exact criteria for the removal of caches of particular sites, but said the company acts "when there is good reason not to make that information available." Caches for several of the sites mentioned in this story disappeared from Google over the weekend.
Experts say the challenge Google faces is a good illustration of the fact that once secrets make it onto the Web, they're very difficult to get back under wraps.