This morning, Steven Aftergood's Secrecy blog at FAS.ORG removed its copy of a .pdf compiled by the US government, a declaration of nuclear sites to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The action appears to be due to increasing pressure caused by mainstream media coverage of the subject, kicked off on Wednesday by William Broad at the New York Times and Eli Lake at the Washington Times. (See here and here respectively.)
As a result, throughout the day, Aftergood and the Federation of American Scientists were often portrayed as providing a 'roadmap' to terrorists.
One of the more extreme reactions, patently ridiculous on its face, is shown in an item from a Missouri newspaper.
"Senator Christopher 'Kit' Bond (R-MO) says this is the kind of thing that can only aid terrorists," it read.
"That is unbelievable - that is a treasure map for terrorists," said the politician "during his weekly radio conference call." "Communities have a right to prevent terrorists from using government information to target and attack facilities in their backyard."
"There's a group called the Federation of American Scientists - a far Left-wing fringe group that wants to disclose all our vulnerabilities ... I don't know what their motives are but I think they are very dangerous to our security."
Another expert called upon to comment inflamed matters by suggesting to the Washington Post that a crime had been committed.
"It is probably not that dangerous, but it is a violation of the law," said David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
"You don't want this information out there, any more than you would want a thief to know the location of a vault in your house."
These were simplistic arguments, immediately deploying a fear card which has been seen many times since 9/11: Terrorists are everywhere, just waiting to get their hands on stuff telling them where dangerous things are in this country. (And where are the dangerous things? Everywhere, in this manner of speaking.)
Over the intervening period, use of this timorous illogic has spawned a host of control orders and policies, many of which have been vigorously opposed.
By example, at various times these have manifested in attempts to obfuscate the location of chemical plants and spills, inventory and strictly regulate most chemical reagents at research institutions, and the removal of cesium sources used in radiation therapy because they might potentially be used to make dirty bombs.
Using the reasoning of Kit Bond, and many others, Americans have no need to know about things like, say, Westinghouse research projects on Beulah Rd. in Pittsburgh for the "[for] the design of small break [loss of coolant accident facilities] that ... also allow investigation of other accident scenarios." (This is found near the top of the 'nuke list' doc.)
This is because the information is, as the meme goes, thought to be of aid to terrorists.
Employing this reasoning on a regular basis, one can rationalize the erasure of entire categories of information, anything deemed dangerous and potentially useful to terrorists (who are everywhere): hazardous waste sites, chemical spills, places where outbreaks of infectious disease have been reported, college science research facilities, mining facilities, the CDC, Fort Detrick, Three Mile Island, Hanford, Pantex and so on.
There is, literally, no end to it.
"The list details the existence of nuclear facilities at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and a Westinghouse research facility in Pittsburgh, among others," reported the Wall Street Journal. Then it added: "Those facilities are internationally known."
Some news agencies were egregious in their manipulation of the story. And CNN's Lou Dobbs furnished a good example.
Dobbs, who regularly excoriates the US government for being stupid and sticking it to average Americans, predictably advertised the document as an aid to terrorism. ("[There] are concerns that the information would be of help to terrorists obtaining nuclear material," he said.)
Dobbs and his producers also included brief comments from Steven Aftergood, comments which seemed to have been edited from a longer interview. The result was a seeming misrepresentation of Aftergood's actual position yesterday, which was that the information in the document was not sensitive.
"I reviewed the document and did not find any sensitive technological information, or any sensitive security-related information," wrote Aftergood in the comments section of the Secrecy blog yesterday. "Therefore I see no reason to remove the document."
Aftergood also made this clear in comments to the Associated Press: "I regret that some people are painting it as a roadmap for terrorists, because that's not what it is ... This is not a disclosure of sensitive nuclear technologies or of facility security procedures. It is simply a listing of the numerous nuclear research sites and the programs that are underway."
In any case, if you knew this, the Dobbs segment was confusing and contradictory, as it did not explain why Aftergood and FAS would have posted the document in the first place. The obvious reason is that the posting of documents from the US government is one of its primary functions, which is to furnish transparency in our democracy, something which is often in short supply.
"The Federation of American Scientists was surprised to spot it, replete with detailed information, including floor plans, on the government printing office Web site as of May 22nd and moved on to post it on their own Web site," said reporter Louis Schiavone to Dobbs. "Scientists familiar with the subject matter say information about the location of dozens of nuclear related sites is generally available with lots of research and in that sense it may not be catastrophic, but it does belie a worrisome sloppiness about nuclear security."
Aftergood: "That is the one thing that is troubling about this whole episode. When the president says in early May that this is a sensitive document that should not be released and two weeks later it winds up on a government Web site, that's a problem."
All told, it has been another good example of how to provoke a crowd into a stampede with a story manufactured to play up fears of terrorism. Even though we're no more at threat today than yesterday.
While FAS has removed its copy of the US government's nuke list doc, every story failed to mention the omnipresence of such information on the web. And the fact that is had already been mirrored elsewhere. (See here and here at Cryptome.)
Bootnote: Such news fits on material said to be something you ought not be able to see because it is deemed a 'treasure map' for terrorists almost always guarantees its copying to a multiplicity of websites, well beyond the wishes of the fearful. See here, too, at Wikileaks.