As I mentioned last week (see posting Control over Information), there are growing concerns that the Federal government is severely restricting access to public information by the public in the name of protecting the public. A good example of the clash between access and security is this story in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Information Incognito”:
Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has advised airplane pilots against flying near 100 nuclear power plants around the country or they will be forced down by fighter jets. But pilots say there’s a hitch in the instructions: aviation security officials refuse to disclose the precise location of the plants because they consider that “SSI” — Sensitive Security Information.
“The message is; ‘please don’t fly there, but we can’t tell you where there is,’ ” says Melissa Rudinger of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a trade group representing 60% of American pilots.
Determined to find a way out of the Catch-22, the pilots’ group sat down with a commercial mapping company, and in a matter of days plotted the exact geographical locations of the plants from data found on the Internet and in libraries. It made the information available to its 400,000 members on its Web site — until officials from the Transportation Security Administration asked them to take the information down. “Their concern was that [terrorists] mining the Internet could use it,” Ms. Rudinger says.
We had a similar issue here in DC (that I worked on in my role as a local elected official). The CSX rail line runs within blocks of the Capitol building (also past the Department of Energy, the FEMA building and within sight of the Pentagon). CSX used to ship tank cars of ultrahazardous material, such as chlorine. (Remember that chlorine spill in South Carolina that killed 8 people in a rural area? Imagine if that had happened 2 blocks from the U.S. Capitol).
Privately, the company told government officials (not me) that they had rerouted those tank cars, although we continued to see tank cars (supposedly empty, I presume) pass by. CSX has now admitted publicly (as part of a lawsuit) that they reroute these shipments away from the specific line just south of the Capitol. However, for the longest time they pointedly refused to say whether the tank cars were still using this rail line or not. They said they would not comment on security measures. We argued that telling everyone there were no ultrahazardous materials on that line would reduce the threat by taking away a terrorist target.
In the course of these arguments, I would like to say that their silence on the issue made as much sense as declaring a non-fly zone and then not telling pilots about it. After reading the Journal article, I now know why this argument carried little weight.