SECRECY NEWS
from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2005, Issue No. 62
July 6, 2005

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRECY ENVELOPES LOCAL DIGITAL DATA

Challenged by a local freedom of information request, a New Jersey utility asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to declare that certain digital records sought by a member of the public were protected from public disclosure.

After a New Jersey resident requested a digital copy of topographic mapping data from the Brick Township Municipal Utilities Authority (BTMUA), utility officials turned to DHS and asked that the requested information be designated as "protected critical infrastructure information (PCII)," so that they would be relieved of any obligation to disclose the data.

Last month, DHS approved the designation.

In reply to a 2003 request from R. Bradley Tombs for a database of topographic mapping information, BTMUA indicated that he could purchase individual topographic maps in hard copy for five dollars each, but that the softcopy database would not be released.

Mr. Tombs filed a complaint with the state's Government Records Council, and the utility responded last year by submitting the requested database to DHS for protection.

The database "contains all of the information pertaining to the potable water treatment and distribution system, and the sanitary sewer collection system," BTMUA wrote in its submission to DHS.

"The totality of the ... database, in a digital format, is information that is not customarily in the public domain."

Mr. Tombs disputed that point, noting that he had personally obtained similar topographic base map information from other public sources.

The utility answered that "Although portions of the information contained in the database may be available from various sources and may therefore be in the public domain, the totality of the information ... is not in the public domain."

DHS accepted the utility's argument. In a June 3, 2005 letter, DHS PCII program manager Laura L.S. Kimberly wrote that "your submission has been validated as PCII."

As a consequence, says Mr. Tombs, common "topographic mapping information containing roads, streams, lakes, forests, buildings and structures, topographic contours, as well as virtually any type of information that can be shown on a map" is now "protected" under the CII umbrella.

A copy of Ms. Kimberly's June 2005 letter, the utility's December 2004 letter of transmittal to DHS, and a November 2004 letter to the parties from an administrative law judge may be found here:

Additional background documents, including requester Tombs' rebuttal to DHS, and submissions to the administrative law judge, are available here (1.2 MB PDF file):

The notion that some public information which is readily available in hard copy should not be disclosed in digital form was endorsed in a rule issued June 21 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which affirmed what it called the "Non-Internet Public (NIP) Designation."

"Anyone wishing to obtain NIP may get it upon request from the Public Reference Room or from Commission staff; however it is not made available to the public through the Commission's Internet site," the rule stated. See:


NY TIMES ON GROWING SECRECY

The New York Times reported this week that government secrecy "has reached a historic high," and that "across the political spectrum there is concern that the hoarding of information could backfire."

Though the facts of the matter may be familiar to attentive readers, the Times account is leavened by several remarkable quotes from government officials.

See "Increase in the Number of Documents Classified by the Government" by Scott Shane, July 3:


CORRECTING THE CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE

In a discussion of the bullets that are used in fifty caliber rifles, a recent Congressional Research Service report included this account:

"A single grain is equivalent to 0.0648 gram. As one pound is equivalent to 28.350 grams, a 665 grain bullet would weigh about 1.52 pounds."

See "Long-Range Fifty Caliber Rifles: Should They Be More Strictly Regulated?," May 20, 2005, page 2, footnote 5:

But wait! One pound is equivalent to 454 grams, not 28 grams (which equals one ounce).

"Maybe the Congress really does need an OTA," quipped Allen Thomson, who was the first of several Secrecy News readers to spot the CRS error. (OTA, the Office of Technology Assessment, was the scientific advisory body terminated by Congress in 1995.)

No one, of course, is above error. But one of the unacknowledged adverse consequences of the CRS policy of restricting distribution of its reports is that such errors may be harder to detect than they would be if anyone, anywhere were free to review the reports.

In this case, a revised copy of the CRS report, without the offending footnote, was issued on May 25.


SELECTED CRS REPORTS

Recent publications of the Congressional Research Service obtained by Secrecy News include the following:

A CRS memorandum that was prepared for Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) and reported in the news today tabulates the number of chemical plants in each state possessing significant amounts of various toxic or flammable substances.

See "RMP Facilities in the United States as of May 2005" by Dana A. Shea, June 27, 2005:

"Nuclear Weapons: Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty," updated June 10, 2005:

"Nuclear Arms Control: The U.S.-Russian Agenda, updated June 8, 2005:

"Nuclear Nonproliferation Issues," updated June 3, 2005:

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Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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