Operation Scrub




I

n
China, the government recently closed 3,300 Internet cafes under
the rubric of “safety” issues. Apparently, a July fire
in one of the underground cafes killed 25, injured 12, and resulted
in officials launching inspections of nearly 45,000 Internet cafes.
In addition to the closures, operations at nearly 12,000 other cyber
cafes have “been suspended pending improvements,” Reuters
reported.


Over
the past few years, China has been struggling with the yin and yang
of widespread Internet access. While officials encourage the use
of the Internet for business and education, an Associated Press
report pointed out that it has also driven many unlicensed cyber
cafés underground and suppressed access to the web by creating
“special filters [that] block web surfers from seeing sites
abroad run by Chinese dissidents, human-rights groups and news organizations.”



I

n
the U.S., the Bush administration wouldn’t dare shut down websites.
Instead, it prefers to cleanse them of information it finds displeasing.
Post 9/11, an intense info-scrubbing was undertaken by a number
of agencies responding to a March 2002 memo by President Bush’s
Chief of Staff Andrew Card. The memo, titled “Guidance on Homeland
Security Information Issued,” was sent to the heads of all
federal departments and agencies. Card reminded them of their “obligation
to safeguard Government records regarding weapons of mass destruction.”
They were told to review “government information…regarding
weapons of mass destruction, as well as other information that could
be misused to harm the security of our nation and the safety of
our people.”


According
to OMB Watch, a Washington, DC-based government watchdog group,
an attached “guidance” suggested that agencies review
“its classified, reclassified and declassified information,”
and be aware of a new type of information called “sensitive
but unclassified.” The guidance stated, “the need to protect
such sensitive information from inappropriate disclosure should
be carefully considered, on a case-by-case basis,” and that
Freedom of Information Act requests should also be considered under
these guidelines.


As
a result, OMB Watch claims that a substantial amount of information
has been removed from the websites of a number of agencies including:
the Agency for Toxics and Disease Registry, Bureau of Transportation
Statistics, Department of Energy, Department of Transportation,
Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Aviation Administration,
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Internal Revenue Service,
National Archives and Records Administration, National Aeronautics
and Space Administration, National Imagery and Mapping Agency, Nuclear
Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Geological Survey. (For examples
of what was cleansed, see the OMB’s “Access to Government
Information Post September 11th,” www.ombwatch.org/article/article-
view/ 213/1/104/#agency.)



Political
Info-Scrubbing



I

n
early November, William Matthews reported in


Federal
Computer Week

that the Department of Health and Human Services
had removed “valuable scientific information” regarding
condoms, HIV, and abortion “from some of their websites.”
In a late December follow-up piece, the

New York Times


Adam Clymer reported on two specific changes: The website at the
National Cancer Institute, which “used to say…that the
best studies showed ‘no association between abortion and breast
cancer,’ now says the evidence is inconclusive.” At the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a fact sheet on its website
“used to say studies showed that education about condom use
did not lead to earlier or increased sexual activity. That statement,
which contradicts the view of ‘abstinence only’ advocates,
is omitted from a revised version of the page.”


Rep.
Henry Waxman (D-CA) and 13 other Democrats sent a letter to Health
and Human Services secretary Tommy Thompson charging, these changes
“appear to be part of an Orewellian trend at HHS. Simply put,”
the letter went on, “information that used to be based on science
is being systematically removed from the public when it conflicts
with the administration’s political agenda.”


Then
there’s the case of biography revisionism. According to Russ
Kick, the creator of the Memory Hole site (www.thememory- hole.org/index.htm),
in May 2001, when Thomas White was named Secretary of the Army,
“his official biography contained two paragraphs…detailing
his experience as a high-level executive at Enron. Sometime after
the energy giant collapsed while upper-level management became even
more filthy-rich,” Kirk writes, “White’s biography
quietly changed. His 11 years as a big shot at Enron suddenly were
worth only a sentence at the very end of his bio, as if an afterthought”
(see wwwthemem- oryhole.org/white-bio.htm).


There
are also incidents in which important data supplied by the government
will no longer be made available. On December 24, buried in the
middle of a Christmas Eve press release about November’s mass
layoffs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that it will no
longer be issuing its Mass Layoff Statistics (MLS) press releases.
MLS releases charting layoffs by companies with more than 50 employees
have been regular staple from the Department of Labor since 1995.
Due to what it called a financial crunch, the DoL announced it was
ending the program at the end of 2002.



Education
Website Overhaul



N

one
of these examples compare with an information- cleansing plan proposed
for, but currently stalled, at the Department of Education. In mid-September
2002, an


Education
Week

story by Michelle R. Davis titled “No URL Left Behind?-Web
Scrub Raises Concerns,” outlined the department’s plan
to “overhaul” its web- site in order “to make it
easier to use and to remove outdated data —and ensure that
material on the site meshes with the Bush administration’s
political philosophy.”


According
to Davis, the redesign would “strip…thousands of files,
many of them old and inaccessible from the site’s home page.”


In
late May 2001, senior staff members and the website office received
a directive titled “Criteria and Process for Removing Old Content
from www.ed.gov,” which laid out how the changes would occur.
“Some of the problems with the site, according to the memo,”
Davis wrote, “include difficulties with navigation, mediocre
graphics, and information that is either outdated or ‘does
not reflect the priorities, philosophies, or goals of the present
administration’.”


According
to Davis, the Department, which established its website (www.ed.gov/index.jsp)
in March 1994, has grown to include more than 50,000 files and receives
an average 84,000 visits a day.” A special site devoted to
President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative
has also recently been established (www.nclb.gov/index.html).


“This
is somewhat new and uncharted territory,” John P. Bailey, the
director of education technology and a Bush appointee who is overseeing
the project, told Davis. “Our goal is to make as much information
as possible current and relevant, while keeping that historical
data and perspective.”


The
Department’s memo caused a coalition of 14 national organizations,
including the American Library Association, the National Education
Association, the National Knowledge Industry Association, the Social
Work Association of America, the American Sociological Association
and others, to send the department a letter in late October expressing
concern that vital information would be stripped from the site.


The
letter read in part: “One of our primary concerns centers on
the fate of information scheduled to be removed from your publicly
accessible web site…we would like to know what steps the Department
is taking to preserve information and provide the easiest possible
permanent public access to any materials that are removed?”


 Two
months later, Secretary of Education Rod Paige responded to the
letter saying that he too was concerned that citizens have “easy
access to the most relevant, current & useful information concerning
current educational programs & initiatives while also being
sensitive to maintaining easily accessible historical archives.”



Managing
Information in the 21st Century



M

anaging
information on government websites is a relatively new and challenging
enterprise. The Clinton administration was the first to extensively
use the web and now the Bush administration is the first with the
opportunity to revise and re-design government sites. According
to


Education Week’s

Michelle Davis, “There are few laws governing government websites
and what they must archive. The National Archives and Records Administration
issued a [draft] guidance on managing web records in April [2001],
saying agency web pages ‘meet the definition of a federal record
and therefore must be managed as such’.”


When
a record is scheduled for removal from a website, the government
should maintain “permanent public access” to them says
Patrice McDermott, the Assistant Director of the Office of Government
Relations at the American Library Association. “Information
needs to be available and accessible to the public, and those records
that are removed from websites need to be stored in a manner that
they can be found and be used,” she said.


For
now, McDermott says, the Education Department’s website scrubbing
project appears to be on hold. In a December e-mail exchange with
the Memory Hole’s Russ Kick, he wrote that he had not “heard
any more about the scrubbing of the site” and while he hadn’t
fully compared his “archived version of the site to the current
one, at this point I can’t see anything obviously missing.”


Administrations
prior to President Clinton’s were faced with the task of warehousing
file-filled banker boxes. Rapidly-evolving information technologies
have forced the Bush administration to deal with new realities and
Team Bush’s penchant for secrecy makes it imperative that right-to-know
advocates monitor the Administration’s Internet activities.
As Sandi Wurtz, a Government Relations Associate at the American
Educational Research Association, a member organization representing
20,000 educational researchers, pointed out, “This is an issue
that we feel requires continual monitoring to assure that all documents
are retained.”







Bill
Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.