In the November 13th issue of Secrecy News, Steven Aftergood quoted my testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment on November 8th. The direct quotes I certainly recognized, but the accompanying interpretation of my policy recommendations was way off course.
In August 2000, the government issued a new regulation governing the public availability of the Risk Management Plans of over 15,000 facilities that deal with amounts of hazardous and extremely hazardous chemicals over certain thresholds. One section of this document describes scenarios about releases of these dangerous chemicals, including information about how such releases could happen and how many people would potentially be hurt or killed. Some data from the Risk Management Plans, including the executive summaries of these scenarios, were subsequently published in searchable form on the Environmental Protection Agency's Internet site. While the detailed scenarios themselves were not posted on the Internet, they remain viewable at reading rooms in each state and several US territories. My testimony addressed this specific regulatory decision. Mr. Aftergood's editorial neglects this fact, painting my comments as a general attack on environmental websites that deal with chemical hazard information and their first amendment rights.
Without embellishment, Risk Management Plan data could provide a veritable roadmap for terrorists or other saboteurs who might wish to unleash a chemical disaster without surmounting the considerable obstacles of making chemical weapons from scratch. The FBI contends that seven of the nine pieces of information needed to target a chemical plant are contained in the Offsite Consequence Analysis section of these plans. Yet, several environmental and right-to-know interest groups have analyzed the Risk Management Plan data and broken it down into even more terrorist-helpful chunks, conveniently posted on their websites. Defenders of easy access to the information in question say they would not knowingly assist terrorists. Perhaps then these groups should reconsider posting items such as a list of the top 50 facilities nationwide from which a chemical release could potentially kill the most people. If that isn't a handy terrorist chemical disaster roadmap, what is?
As a closer reading of my testimony reveals, I thoroughly respect and advocate the public's right to know of the industrial dangers in their communities. However, there are better ways in which to release information about US chemical plants and enable citizen monitoring of their activities. Before the August 2000 regulation was implemented, citizens could ask any number of questions about local chemical sites and their community's disaster response plans and capabilities in meetings of their Local Emergency Planning Committees. Not only could they learn more from knowledgeable local officials and industry representatives than they could from a sheet of paper, citizens could voice concerns and recommendations directly to local authorities. This approach is far preferable to the current regulatory approach that makes it more convenient to access this data but also hands terrorists the information they need for their malevolent plots on a silver platter.
Since one can hardly dispute that some terrorist groups are determined to harm as many Americans as possible, does convenience really outweigh the possible catastrophes that could result from Internet and reading room availability of this data? Just as the price of better airline security is going to be longer lines at airports, so will some reasonable sacrifices have to be made to make it more difficult to enable terrorists to use the chemical facilities in our midst against us.
Yes, my testimony urged that the EPA's website and reading rooms be permanently closed and that the environmental and right-to-know groups pull this information from their websites. If not, I believe they are placing at risk the very lives that they desire to protect. Should these groups refuse to do so voluntarily, I think government has a duty to step in and pursue the removal of JUST the Risk Management Plan associated data from the sites concerned. Key parts of some scenario information have been scanned and posted on the Internet. Only a "covered person"-a government official in most cases, or a researcher who has applied for access-is supposed to be able to have this type of data outside of the reading rooms. Abuse of this special status by disseminating this data constitutes a criminal act. People and organizations obviously aren't abiding by the law and should be held accountable.
In sum, the issue is not IF this information should be accessible, but HOW easily people should be able to access it. My testimony never advocated general censorship or the blanket withholding of this information, only a more careful and considered approach to its distribution. Accordingly, Mr. Aftergood's characterization of my remarks was simplistic, belittling in places, and most importantly, incorrect. While I have no doubt that some may continue to disagree with my point of view, an accurate understanding of my perspective should be a prerequisite for doing so.