The Bush administration is doing the public's business out of the public eye. Here's how--and why
Under the administration's plan to implement the Homeland Security Act, some businesses may get even more protection. When Congress passed the law, it said the antidisclosure provision would apply only to information submitted to the Department of Homeland Security. The department recently proposed extending the provision to cover information submitted to any federal agency. A department spokesman did not respond to requests for comment. Business objections were also pivotal when the Environmental Protection Agency recently backed off a plan that would have required some companies to disclose more about chemical stockpiles in communities.
If the administration's secrecy policies have helped business, they have done little for individuals worried about health and safety issues. The residents of the small town of Aberdeen, Md., can attest to that. On a chilly fall evening, some 100 people gathered at the Aberdeen firehouse to hear the latest about a toxic substance called perchlorate. An ingredient in rocket fuel, perchlorate has entered the aquifer that feeds the town's drinking-water wells. The culprit is the nearby U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, where since World War I, all manner of weapons have been tested.
Trigger finger. After word of the perchlorate contamination broke, a coalition of citizens began working with the Army to try to attack the unseen plume of pollution moving through the ground. But earlier this year, the Army delivered Aberdeen residents a sharp blow. It began censoring maps to eliminate features like street names and building locations--information critical to understanding and tracking where contamination might have occurred or where environmental testing was being done.
The reason? The information, the Army says, could provide clues helpful to terrorists. Arlen Crabb, the head of a citizens' group, doesn't buy it. "It's an abuse of power," says Crabb, a 20-year Army veteran, whose well lies just a mile and a half from the base. His coalition is suing the Army, citing health and safety concerns. "We're not a bunch of radicals. We've got to have the proof. The government has to be transparent."
Aberdeen is but one example of the way enhanced security measures increasingly conflict with the health and safety concerns of ordinary Americans. Two basics--drinking water and airline travel--help illustrate the trend. A public health and bioterrorism law enacted last year requires, among other things, that operators of local water systems study vulnerabilities to attack or other disruptions and draw up plans to address any weaknesses. Republicans and Democrats praised the measure, pushed by the Bush administration, as a prudent response to potential terrorist attacks. But there's a catch. Residents are precluded from obtaining most information about any vulnerabilities.
This wasn't always the case. In 1996, Congress passed several amendments to the Clean Water Act calling for "source water assessments" to be made of water supply systems. The idea was that the assessments, covering such things as sources of contamination, would arm the public with information necessary to push for improvements. Today, the water assessments are still being done, but some citizens' groups say that because of Bush administration policy, the release of information has been so restricted that there is too little specific information to act upon. They blame the Environmental Protection Agency for urging states to limit information provided to the public from the assessments. As a result, the program has been fundamentally reshaped from one that has made information widely available to one that now forces citizens to essentially operate on a need-to-know basis, says Stephen Gasteyer, a Washington specialist on water-quality issues. "People [are] being overly zealous in their enforcement of safety and security, and perhaps a little paranoid," he says. "So you're getting releases of information so ambiguous that it's not terribly useful." Cynthia Dougherty, director of EPA's groundwater and drinking-water office, described her agency's policy as laying out "minimal standards," so that states that had been intending to more fully disclose information "had the opportunity to decide to make a change."