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In his State of the Union Address, George Bush reported that terrorists in Afghanistan collected diagrams of U.S. nuclear power plants and public water infrastructure. The war on terrorism continues here and abroad, and it requires our continued vigilance. But there is something that the administration itself appears to have overlooked.
Right now, terrorists could be researching in federal government libraries whether and how to launch an attack on a chemical plant in your community. The federal government provides detailed information on 15,000 facilities around the country - including nuclear power plants, public water facilities, and private manufacturing plants. The FBI, the CIA and security experts have noted in the past that this information could be useful to terrorists, but the federal government continues to make it freely available.
It is forced to do so through a series of so-called right-to-know laws. The information on industrial plants became available thanks to a provision of the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act that requires facilities to develop "risk management plans" that are supposed to help plants prepare for accidental chemical releases. The plans include the number of potential fatalities and injuries that an accidental release could cause to the surrounding community, mitigation measures at the plant to control releases, what types and quantities of chemicals are stored at the plants, what wind conditions would maximize fatalities, whether such places as schools are located nearby, and other details that terrorists might find helpful in selecting targets and plan an attack to ensure maximum damage.
When the deadline for plants to submit the information grew close in 1998, the agency indicated that it would post it on the Internet. But security experts - the FBI, CIA, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and various other groups - raised alarm. They feared that such Internet posting would give terrorists easy access to an anonymous, searchable database of potential targets.
Congress responded with legislation requesting that the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency issue a rule governing the process for releasing the data to minimize security risks. Unfortunately, the agencies promulgated a rule that still makes the information readily available to any interested party.
Under the "reformed" law, the EPA posted the bulk of the information on the Internet and then made all of it available in at least 50 "reading rooms" throughout the nation. Individuals who merely show an identification card can view details on up to 10 facilities per month. After Sept. 11, public officials wised up - but only a tiny bit. EPA and various other agencies pulled sensitive information off their Internet sites. Unfortunately, environmental groups had already downloaded summaries from EPA's Web page on industrial facilities, and it remains online today. The full information remains easily accessible at federal libraries.
Ironically, supporters of providing this information claim that it will educate the public about risks. But most people can't make heads or tales out of all the technical information. This information isn't very telling about the most likely risks, nor does it tell citizens how to respond in the case of an emergency.
Security officials say it makes sense to provide the information to emergency planners. If it helps them address risks, then let them have it. But do we have to give it to anyone, including any potential terrorist, who asks?
The lack of administration response may in part be related to the fact that the law requires them to make the information available. But if that's the case, a brigade of While House officials should be banging on the doors of members of Congress, calling for a change to this dangerous law. After all, as the president says, "tens of thousands of trained terrorists are still at large."
Angela Logomasini is director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market public policy group in Washington, D.C.