Doublethink: Protection or Supression in Information
by Miriam Drake Professor Emerita Library,
Georgia Institute of Technology
This article is the first of two dealing with government information activities
after September 11, 2001. This article will cover regulations and actions related
to government withholding, suppressing, and altering information. The next
article will cover the gathering and disseminating of information about citizens
authorized by the USA Patriot Act, the proposed Patriot II, and the Homeland
Access to government information and decisions to withhold and/or alter such
information raise tensions between equally laudable, but sometimes conflicting,
goals: an informed citizenry and national security; the progress of science and
technology and protection of sensitive information; and public health and ideology.
What are the trade-offs between an informed citizenry and national security?
How can people gauge risks to their lives and property if they are denied access
to vital information about these risks? How can science and technology maintain
traditions of information sharing in an environment in which sensitive information
cannot be published? How can we reconcile the need to circulate information about
disease prevention when political agendas alter or remove such data from government
Web sites? These questions are only a few of the issues created by current government
information policies, in particular, those deriving from September 11, 2001,
and the ongoing (at press time) war with Iraq.
Librarians and the information community share many concerns about
the government removing information from Web sites, failing to post
information to Web sites, and moving toward greater limitations on
access to taxpayer-funded research and information. The comments below
were given in telephone interviews.
Susan Tulis, associate dean, Southern Illinois University
Libraries, expressed two major concerns: our lack of knowledge about
material no longer available from the government and preservation.
She observed, "It is hard to know what we do not know. We do not know
what used to be available and is no longer available." She also stated
that lack of preservation and archiving of missing information means
that the information is gone forever.
Patrice McDermott, Washington Office, American Library Association,
also expressed unease about not knowing about information that has
disappeared from Web sites or information that agencies have not posted
to Web sites. She indicated that federal agencies are becoming more
risk averse about posting new information. When asked about the effects
of the E-Government Act, Ms McDermott opined that it could take years
to implement the Act.
Gary Cornwell, head of reference for Humanities and Social
Sciences, University of Florida, and chair of the ALA Task Force on
Restrictions to Government Information, worries about information disappearing
and points out that we have a new category of fugitive documents. He
said, "There is no guarantee of long-term public access. There are
no protocols for determining information to be removed. The balance
between the public right to know and national security is a tough issue." The
Task Force that Mr. Cornwell chairs will recommend actions by the information
Steve Gass, associate director for public services, Massachusetts
Institute of Technology Libraries, is concerned with the difficult
issue of science publishing and national security. He said, "Scientists
collaborating to explore solutions is the most appropriate path. The
scientific community acting responsibly and agreeing to a reasonable
approach is preferable to government-imposed solutions." Mr. Gass talked
about the MIT Faculty Ad Hoc Committee Report on Access and Disclosure
to Scientific Information
Gary Bass, executive director, OMB Watch, commented on the
change in culture in the administration of the Freedom of Information
Act (FOIA). Clinton administration Attorney General Janet Reno encouraged
openness, transparency, and disclosure. John Ashcroft encourages secrecy
and nondisclosure of information considered sensitive though unclassified.
There is no definition, at this time, of sensitive but unclassified
Information professionals are uneasy about removal of information,
failure to post new information, lack of knowledge about information
guidelines, lack of preservation, and erosion of the FOIA safety net.
They fear that the progress made in recent years in expanding government
information accessibility may be irretrievably lost in support of national
security and administration politics.
Destruction of our democratic government and changing the way we live are
among the goals of our terrorist enemies. Unfettered and open access to information
is basic to the preservation of our democratic government. Open access to information
gives our citizens the opportunity to learn about what government is and is
not doing. With the Internet now becoming the vehicle of choice for dissemination
of government information, the investment made by taxpayers in information
activities is returned many-fold to the people.
Globally, science, medicine, business, and education rely on the Internet
for communication with colleagues around the world. This communication nurtures
collaboration that results in economic advances, learning, and productivity.
People in some nations are restricted in sites they can view, as well as available
television and radio broadcasts. Other nations offer open access with information
available both to people wanting to learn and people wanting to do harm. Suppression
of information in the short run, whether for security or ideological reasons,
will likely have unknown, long-run consequences.
Government information funded by taxpayers belongs to the taxpayers and should
be readily available for taxpayer use. In 1990, the National Commission on
Libraries and Information Science in the Principles of Public Information stated, "We
assert that public information is information owned by the people, held in
trust by their government, and should be available to people except where restricted
by law." Government uses this information to carry out its work, preserve our
history, inform the citizenry, and provide vital information to citizens. Government
information is essential for business, education, research, and the health
and well-being of our democratic government and our people.
The government has had policies in place for many years that define criteria
for classifying information important to our national security. Access to classified
information is limited to a small percent of government officials and contractors
who have received clearances. Confidentiality of classified information is
essential to our security.
Our freedom to access unclassified government information and use that information
for research, learning, or just to satisfy curiosity is being compromised currently
under the aegis of national security and ideology. Unclassified information
that may be considered sensitive is being removed from government Web sites.
While many people will not notice the absence of information on government
Web sites or in federal depository libraries, other people may find the lack
of access a major obstacle to completing projects, writing dissertations, or
performing their work. In addition, an environment that hides information disregards
history and the need to preserve government information for future generations.
According to OMB Watch [http://www.ombwatch.org/article/articleprint/213/-1/104] in
a list published in 2002, the following agencies have removed information from
their Web sites: Agency for Toxic and Disease Registry; Bureau of Transportation
Statistics, Department of Transportation; Department of Energy; Environmental
Protection Agency; Federal Aviation Administration; Internal Revenue Service;
National Archives and Records Administration; National Aeronautics and Space
Administration (NASA); National Imagery and Mapping Agency; Nuclear Regulatory
Agency; and U.S. Geological Survey. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC) and the National Cancer Institute have removed or modified
Web-based information on HIV, cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion,
and condoms. The Department of Labor has removed its data on massive layoffs
in the U.S. The Los Alamos National Laboratory has removed many unclassified
reports from its Web site.
National security is only one of many reasons government information is being
withheld from public access. Other reasons range from lack of money, e.g.,
in the case of the Bureau of Labor Statistics Mass Layoff Statistics, to political
pressure, e.g., on the CDC, and pressure from private industry to shut down
the DoE's PubScience.
Geographic information (GIS) removed by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics
has been partially restored. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics announced
that it plans to provide one-stop service for geospatial data through an e-gov
initiative. The GIS is a major resource for industry, academe, and state and
local governments. Transportation spatial data, mapping, and GIS state data
are essential for many programs and projects ranging from transportation planning
The Environmental Protection Agency's Risk Management plans contain important
information about chemical accidents and their prevention. These plans are
collected under the Clean Air Act and contain information on hazard assessment,
prevention programs, and emergency response plans for chemicals used in 15,000
sites. Lack of this information to companies using chemicals could result in
inappropriate responses to emergencies and obstacles to effective planning
with potentially dire consequences to people living within the vicinity of
these sites and employees working at the site.
The Department of Transportation [http://www.npms.rspa.dot.gov] has
limited access to its pipeline mapping, under the Pipeline Integrity Management
Mapping Application, to operators and officials of federal, state, and local
governments. Access must be given from the Office of Pipeline Security. The
Web site contains the statement that the Office of Pipeline Security monitors
user activity. Again the potential for dire consequences is increased because
some planners and construction companies are prohibited from accessing information
they need to prevent accidents, hazardous conditions, or unintentional damage.
The U.S. Geological Survey notified all Federal Depository Libraries to destroy
a CD-ROM containing data on the characteristics of public surface water supplies.
Withholding this information affects local government water agencies and people
concerned with stream flow data.
On December 17, 2002, President Bush signed the E-Government Act
(PL 107-347) into law. The Act provides programs, activities, and money
to use information technology to improve the delivery of government
information and services to citizens. Among the purposes of the Act,
specified in section 2, are "to promote use of the Internet and other
information technologies to provide increased opportunities for citizen
participation in government; to promote the use of the Internet and
emerging information technologies within and across government agencies
to provide citizen-centric government information and services; and
to promote access to high-quality government information and services
across multiple channels." The Act calls for the establishment of the
Office of Electronic Government, Chief Information Officers Council,
and several committees to implement the Act.
The Act states, "Electronic government means the use by the government
of Web-based Internet applications and other technologies, combined
with processes and implement these technologies to (A) enhance access
to and delivery of government information and services to the public,
other agencies, and other government entities; or (B) bring about improvements
in government operations that may include effectiveness, efficiency,
service quality, or transformation."
These sites contain information considered sensitive by a government agency.
It is not clear who decides what information is sensitive or what criteria
are used to determine sensitivity. The administration is drafting guidelines
for "sensitive homeland security" information. Withholding "sensitive but unclassified" information
is not new. In October 1986, the Reagan administration tried to restrict access
to and dissemination of unclassified information. Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter,
then President Reagan's national security advisor, developed the policy. The
National Security Council defines sensitive information as follows:
Sensitive but unclassified information is information the disclosure, loss,
misuse, alteration or destruction of which could adversely affect national
security or other federal government interests. Other government interests
are those related, but not limited, to the wide range of government or government-derived
economic, human, financial, industrial, agricultural, technological, law-enforcement
information, as well as the privacy or confidentiality of personal or commercial
proprietary information provided to the United States government by its citizens.1
In other words, anything that the government did not want to release could
be deemed sensitive and withheld. The policy was rescinded in March 1987 because
of pressure from the Congress and the public.
Vigilance is needed! The Homeland Security Act (PL-107-296) directs the President
to "describe and implement procedures" to "identify and safeguard" homeland
security information that is sensitive but unclassified. The Act further states, "It
is the sense of the Congress" that procedures include authorization to enter
into nondisclosure agreements with state and local personnel with respect to
sensitive but unclassified information.
Science Under Stress
The San Francisco Chronicle reported in January 2003 that the University
of California was experiencing increased pressure from the federal government
to not publish research because the results may "fall into the hands of terrorists."1 Science
relies on open literature to learn about research methods and results, avoid
redundancy, and stay updated about new developments. Science is global. It
is does not stop at our boarders. Charles Vest, president of MIT, observed, "Science
is a collective endeavor. Science increasingly is an international endeavor.
The weight of these statements is compounding at lightning speed as the complexity
of science increases, and because, like all of society, scientists are tied
together through the Internet. Science progresses not just by singular discoveries,
but also by the independent verification and interactive discussion of discoveries.
Knowledge is honed through ongoing dialogue that takes unexpected twists and
turns. It thrives in openness, and suffers in isolation" [http://www.mit.edu/president/communications/rpt01-02.html].
In more peaceful times, international publication, discussion, and communication
among scientists and engineers would be welcome, because the results enrich
the health and well-being of the world's people. In times of strife and war,
open publication may compromise our security and safety by allowing enemies
to access information for harmful purposes. The Congressional Research Service
describes the heart of the problem: "A fundamental trade-off between scientific
progress and security concerns is crux of the policy debate. The scientific
enterprise is based upon open and full exchange of information and thrives
on the ability of scientists to collaborate and communicate their results.
On the other hand, this very openness provides potential enemies with information
that allow them to harm U.S. interests."2
The National Academy of Sciences held discussions about issues associated
with publishing in response to concerns voiced by microbiologists on research
results being used by terrorists.3 At the annual
meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS),
editors of major science journals announced that they would be vigilant. "Few,
if any, of the thousands of research papers reviewed annually for publication
would be rejected outright. Papers would still contain sufficient details to
allow other scientists to independently duplicate experiments a vital
step in validating discoveries" [http//www.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,57698,00.html].
There is genuine concern for protecting the integrity of scientific process.
The trade-off between open publication and protection of the nation will pose
dilemmas and difficulty for scientists, editors, teachers, and others involved
in science, technology, and publishing. Self-regulation by responsible scientists,
editors, and publishers is more likely to preserve the integrity of science
and protect national interests than regulation by the government.
More egregious activity involves health data, the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC), and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The CDC has
removed information on the methods of preventing HIV/AIDS from its Web sites.
The NCI changed information on its Web site dealing with the relationship between
abortion and breast cancer. "Staff members [CDC] point to the recent removal
from CDC Web sites of information on methods to prevent AIDS, while groups
that receive grants for AIDS education have been hit by audits they believe
are intended to have a chilling effect."4 The removal
of HIV/AIDS prevention information was aimed at pleasing pressure groups that
would prefer to suppress information on alternatives to abstinence as a prevention
measure at the risk of endangering public health.
Critics have accused the Bush administration of censoring medical information
and altering research reports in order to promote the agenda of abstinence.
On October 21, 2002, Representative Henry Waxman and 11 colleagues wrote to
Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services, protesting these actions.
The letter stated. "The alterations are certainly not in the interests of public
health and they appear to have been made for political rather than scientific
reasons." In their conclusion the Representatives said, "Simply put, information
that used to be based on science is being systematically removed from the public
when it conflicts with the administration's political agenda." HHS responded
by saying that the information had been removed so that it could be replaced
with "newer scientific information." 5 The goals
of these groups are cloaked in language aimed at reducing sexual activity among
teenagers. The people most likely to be harmed by removing information about
disease prevention and altering language describing research results are teenagers,
the very people the administration wants to help.
Anyone with any experience in a public or academic library knows that many
teenagers need authoritative information about a variety of medical subjects,
especially sexually transmitted diseases, and many are reluctant to ask parents
or teachers. Access to authoritative and accurate Web sites presenting methods
of prevention will save many teenagers from lifelong battles with disease.
It appears that the pressure groups and the administration believe that education
and knowledge are more harmful than ignorance.
The administration has not limited its largesse to groups suppressing health
information. It has extended its gifts to the members of the Software and Information
Industry Association (SIIA) and other publishers. Science and technology are
the drivers of the U.S. economy. The basic research of scientists translates
into new products and innovation produced by private industry. Scientists rely
on the previous and current work of colleagues. "Eureka!" discoveries occur
only in comic books and movies.
In 1999, the Office of Scientific and Technical Information, Department of
Energy launched PubScience to provide access to abstracts of journal articles
in the physical sciences. The database grew to 1,200 journal titles from 35
publishers including professional societies and private publishers. The service
linked the abstracts to full-text articles available from commercial fee-based
services. Taxpayer cost was $200,000 per year, a small price for a valuable
The service was especially useful to scientists not having ready access to
research libraries or commercial bibliographic databases. These scientists
could search PubScience, select articles of interest, link to publishers, and
pay for articles they needed while increasing revenue for publishers. Students
around the world could access the database and learn about research in their
fields. These students were less likely to pay for access to commercial bibliographic
databases but might be able to pay for articles required for their studies.
The SIIA was not satisfied. It viewed PubScience as unfair competition and
brought pressure to have it taken down. SIIA succeeded. The service was taken
down on November 4, 2002. The SIIA in a press release [www.siia.net/sharedcontent/press/2002/11-15-02.html] stated, "Since
the inception of PubScience in 1999, SIIA has argued that DOE should discontinue
PubScience because it provides access to a database of bibliographic information
that duplicates and competes with databases made available by private-sector
The federal government funds 80 to 90 percent of research in the physical
sciences. At $200,000 per year, PubScience was a bargain for taxpayers. The
return on investment was significant. It provided needed information to students,
scholars, and people interested in science who could not afford access to expensive
commercial databases. The success of SIIA and its members in bringing down
PubScience may be a prelude to increased privatization of government and government-funded
Privatizing government information would make information inaccessible to
the taxpayers who have funded the gathering, processing, and publication of
the information. This action would represent a flagrant disregard for the taxpayers'
OMB Fights On
In another example of attempts to limit access to and distribution of government
information, the battle between the executive branch and Congress continues.
On May 3, 2002, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a memorandum
directing executive branch agencies to bypass the Government Printing Office
(GPO) and contract directly with printers in the private sector. This directive
violated the mandate contained in Title 44 (44 USC 501) that all agencies,
except the Judiciary, use GPO. A draft Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)
was issued on November 13, 2002, specifyinghow agencies should implement the
directive. The FAR clearly violated Title 44. The administration has not indicated
that it intends to ask Congress to change the law. Near the end of 2002, Congress
became actively involved in the dispute and issued several resolutions prohibiting
agencies from bypassing the GPO [http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb021209-2.htm].
The GPO is responsible for the operations of the Federal Depository Library
Program (FDLP). By printing, publishing, cataloging, and distributing government
documents and online information to depository libraries, GPO assures the availability
of government information to the public in 1,300 libraries. The public has
relied on depository libraries for more than 190 years. The FDLP program was
established to ensure that people could have information about their government.
Today, the program provides expert help to people seeking government information,
as well as a safety net that assures access. The GPO also has a strong policy
of offering permanent archives to government information published on the Web.
The Congressional Joint Committee on Printing may grant exemptions to Title
44 for individual agencies. Experience demonstrates that agencies with exemptions
routinely fail to send copies of documents to the GPO for distribution to the
depository libraries. The result is fugitive documents left uncataloged and
difficult to locate and obtain. Finding and obtaining fugitive documents take
knowledge, time, and patience. The draft version of the FAR [http://www.arl.org/infor/frn/gov/OMBFARCOMMENTS.html] indicates
that a copy of each document should be provided to GPO for reproduction and
distribution to the libraries. Title 44, section 1903 states that issuing agencies
must pay the cost of printing and binding depository library copies. Providing
a single copy to GPO for printing and distribution at GPO's expense violates
If OMB succeeds in this effort, it will mean less access at higher cost.
The OMB argues that agencies contracting directly with private printers will
save money and provide increased business for private printers that primarily
are small businesses. Since GPO currently contracts 85 percent of its printing
work, it is difficult to see how more business would go to private industry.
GPO has qualified more than 10,000 private companies. Most of the work done
in-house is so mandated by Congress. If each agency were to contract with private
companies, it would require that printers qualify with hundreds of agencies
in order to get the work. It also would mean adding several hundred positions
in the agencies to handle printing procurement.
OMB's plan ignores the law and denies information to the people who funded
The Department of Labor distributed a database of mass layoff statistics.
The Web site states, "Mass Layoff Statistics (MLS) Program has been discontinued" [http://www.bls.gov/mls/home.htm].
Funding ended on December 31, 2002. With the large number of layoffs in the
current economy, it is not surprising that the administration would want to
hide the numbers. Labor historians, economists, and others studying labor trends
can no longer access the database.
Freedom of Information Act
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (5 USC 552) was passed to provide a
safety net for people needing government information. In responding to FOIA
requests, agencies must make "reasonable efforts" to find the requested information
and provide it. The goal of FOIA is to make information available, not suppress
Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memorandum to agency heads on October
12, 2001, stating, "Any discretionary decision by your agency to disclose information
protected under the FOIA should be made only after full and deliberate consideration
of the institutional, commercial, and personal privacy interests that could
be implicated by the disclosure of the information." He added, "When you carefully
consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records, in whole or in part,
you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions
unless they lack a sound basis or present an unwarranted risk of adverse impact
on the ability of other agencies to protect records."
Clearly, the rules have changed from encouraging cooperation and positive
responses to implying that negative decisions will be supported and defended.
The provisions of the Homeland Security Act with regard to sensitive but unclassified
information further cloud the issue of taxpayer rights to information the government
The intentions expressed in the E-Government Act are in sharp contrast with
the actions of the administration. The provisions of the Homeland Security
Act, withdrawing information from Web sites, altering science and health information,
and changing the rules on FOIA, are not in keeping with "citizen-centric" government
services and information. George Orwell in 1984 wrote of doublethink simultaneous
belief in contradictory ideas. The administration's version of doublethink
is the good intentions of e-government announcements juxtaposed with the removal
of sensitive but unclassified information from government-operated Web sites
and removing methods for disease prevention for ideological reasons.
There is great concern in the information community not only about the removal
of information from Web sites but also about not knowing what is available
but not posted. Agencies may be reluctant to post new material because of lack
of guidelines. Failure to post new information means that its existence will
be known only to the agencies involved and their immediate circles. Failure
to notify GPO or the information community about the existence of information,
failure to catalog the material, and failure to preserve the information means,
among other things, the loss of part of our history.
Legislation and the actions of the government raise disturbing questions.
What are the criteria for deeming information sensitive but unclassified? Does
the sensitive but unclassified label apply only to national security information
or does it apply to other information that the government does not want published
or made available? When do public health and disease prevention take precedence
over politics and ideology? What is the trade-off between the public's right
to know and national security interests? What is the balance between the advancement
of science and technology and the need to suppress research findings for national
security reasons? Once the government has established information controls
based on the 9-11 and war condition crises, will Congress and/or future administrations
ever be willing to give up the controls?
The long-run interests of the nation and the people of the world are not
served by barring access to information. The notion of the public interest
underlying many pieces of existing legislation seems to have floated away.
The efforts of the government to suppress information on the one hand and gather
private data about our citizens on the other are the building blocks to an
Orwellian dystopia of control and fear. The American Library Association through
its Task Force on Restrictions on Access to Government Information has formulated
draft recommendations [http://www.library.unr.edu/dept/bgic/duncan/RAGI.html] to
deal with the problems. The Task Force report will be presented at ALA's annual
meeting in June.
1 Wyatt, Buchanan. "Post-9/11 Researchers
Fear Muzzle from U.S.," San Francisco Chronicle, January 3, 2003.
2 Shea, Dana. Balancing Scientific Publication
and National Security Concerns: Issues for Congress. Congressional
Research Service, January 10, 2003.
3 Schemo, Diana Jean. "Scientists Discuss
Balance of Research and Security," New York Times, January 10, 2003.
4 McKenna, J. A. J. "Political Shift Felt
as CDC Endures Change," Atlanta Journal Constitution, November 23.
5 Clymer, Adam. "Critics Say Government
Deleted Sexual Material from a Web Site to Push Abstinence." New York
Times, November 26, 2002.