ABERDEEN, Md. -- People who live near the sprawling military weapons training facility here have long worried about toxic chemicals leaching into their water supply. The U.S. Army, acknowledging those concerns, has for years provided them with detailed base maps and information on where the trouble might be found.
But that was before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a quiet but widespread government crackdown on information sharing.
When the Aberdeen citizens discovered in late 2002 that perchlorate, a toxic derivative of rocket fuel, was in their water supply, the Army provided a map -- but initially one with all roads, buildings, wells and hazardous waste sites missing.
The Army's reasoning for the information "black-out" was national security. Terrorists might use the maps to mount an attack on the 72,000-acre weapons training facility, Army officials said.
"How are we supposed to protect ourselves if we don't have the information?" asked Glenda Bowling, past president of the Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition, holding up a detailed map given to her group before the Al-Qaeda attacks.
Few Americans would argue with the federal government's need to classify sensitive information that could protect lives.
But since the 2001 terrorist attacks, federal, state and local governments are shutting down access to public records in what some experts say is the most expansive assault on open government in the nation's history.
"Every administration over-classifies documents," said Roger Pilon, vice president of legal affairs at the Cato Institute. But the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy has challenged due process in the legislative branch by keeping secret the names of the terror suspects being held at Guantanamo Bay, he said.
In its first two years alone, Bush administration officials made some 44.5 million decisions to classify records and related documents, according to statistics compiled by the Information Security Oversight Office, an arm of the federal government's National Archives and Records Administration.
That's roughly the same number of classification decisions made during President Clinton's last four years.
And Bush has expanded the number of officials who can hide records from public view, granting classification powers to the secretary of agriculture, the secretary of health and human services and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. This power historically has been reserved only for federal agencies involved with national security, such as the departments of Defense, State and Justice.
The Sept. 11 attacks have been used "as an excuse to close the doors of government," said Rick Blum, government secrecy coordinator at OMB Watch, a nonprofit government watchdog group. At the same time, he said, private industry has tried to shield information from the public that may be embarrassing to companies.
But J. William Leonard, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, said the increase in classification merely continues a long-standing trend and is not as sinister as some believe. It is mainly due to the the explosion of electronic records kept by the government, he said, as well as the need for secrecy to fight a dual war in Iraq and against terrorists.
"Is over-classification a problem? Yes," Leonard said. "But, I can emphatically state that this administration is no more secretive in the classified national security arena than prior administrations."
Still, examples of government secrecy abound, some clearly outside the scope of national security interests:
The administration's refusal since 2001 to release information about the task force assembled by Vice President Dick Cheney to recommend energy policy.
The Homeland Security Act of 2002 includes a provision that allows companies to supply information about their critical infrastructure to the Department of Homeland Security in exchange for protection from lawsuits and public disclosure through the Freedom of Information Act.
The Federal Aviation Administrationremoved records from the Internet on enforcement actions taken against airlines, pilots and mechanics.
The Environmental Protection Agency eliminated listings of chemical accidents from its Web site, making it harder for citizens to find out about hazards in their communities.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is so restrictive that the names of those injured in a train wreck can be kept secret from their neighbors.
The Driver's Privacy Protection Act prohibits states from giving out personal information about a person, including driving records in some states.
Some states have sealed voting records,making it difficult to determine if a candidate for office has cast ballots in recent elections or whether dead people are voting.
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