News » Up Front

Coming up dry

Libraries purge water supply data over security concerns

by

comment

Hundreds of CD-ROMs containing the nation’s water supply data have disappeared from American research libraries. The culprits weren’t terrorists, but librarians.

“This is a new aspect that has cropped up as of Sept. 11,” says University of Montana Dean of Library Services Frank D’Andraia. UM documents librarian Dennis L. Richards echoes D’Andraia’s words. “We have been so open for so long with so much information,” Richards says. “After Sept. 11 things have changed.”

About 335 libraries throughout the country have destroyed the water supply CDs at the request of the federal government. UM’s Mansfield Library was among them.

The directive came from the U.S. Government Printing Office, which did not cite security risks as a reason for withdrawing the CD, entitled “Source-Area Characteristics of Large Public Surface-Water Supplies in the Conterminous United States: An Information Resource for Source-Water Assessment”).

The directive reads in part: “Please withdraw this material immediately and destroy it by any means to prevent the disclosure of its contents.” The U.S. Geological Survey’s Associate Director for Water, Robert Hirsch, originally asked the Government Printing Office to issue the order. No one at the USGS could be reached for comment on why they wanted the CD destroyed. The only explanation that could be found came in an e-mail message from the printing office’s director of congressional and public affairs, Andrew Sherman.

“When a member of the library community questioned the need for this action,” he says, “a U.S. Geological Survey e-mail reply said: ‘Subsequent contact with the Government Printing Office and the USGS Committee that sets official policy on restriction of sensitive information has reconfirmed the validity of the original written instruction from USGS and GPO to destroy the report.’”

Like many federal documents provided to libraries, the CD-ROM is the property of the U.S. government, not the libraries. Libraries have no jurisdiction over the documents and thus have no power to refuse orders from the government.

“It’s part of the job,” Richards says, upon receiving the directive. Richards says he destroyed the CD immediately after receiving the directive. He adds that he has been asked in the past to withdraw other documents because they were out of date, incomplete or damaged, but this was the first time he has been asked to destroy a document for suspected national security reasons.

The CD had not yet been checked out and Richards said that no one has since requested it. Very shortly after he destroyed the CD it was taken out of the library’s electronic catalogue so few people could have known of its existence.

UM Geology Professor Johnnie Moore says in an e-mail that the CD probably contained a listing of all the reservoirs and dams in the country. “I think the government’s argument for destroying this ‘sensitive’ information was to keep the location of dams from potential terrorists,” Moore says. “It also keeps information useful for legitimate research from researchers and citizens concerned about the effects of dams on river systems.”

The Mansfield Library was issued the CD because it is the state’s primary depository and receives all federal documents available to libraries. Federal documents are often considered invaluable research tools by students and professors alike.

Mansfield was the only Montana library to have the CD.

UM is not the only university faced with the directive. In February, the Washington Post reported that a University of Arizona library clerk also destroyed that school’s copy of the CD. Concerned about the issue, the university’s administration decided to seek legal counsel before removing any other documents, according to the Washington Post article. University of Arizona documents librarian Atifa Rawan says that a clerk there did destroy the CD but they have no plans to seek any legal counsel. “In our library, we re-examined GPO guidelines,” Rawan in an e-mail. “Our library administrators wanted to find out how many documents we destroyed and how often we get notices from GPO in regard to destroying materials.” In addition to being available at libraries throughout the country, the CD was available for purchase from a government information services office in Denver.

Richards says the information also might have been available on a government Web site but only in an extremely abbreviated form. D’Andraia says controlling information of this kind is more difficult in the digital age.

“Today, things have changed,” he says. “They can get things in print, electronically, and government documents.”

While the removal from public access of one CD on public reservoirs and water supplies may seem inconsequential, it reflects a larger trend since Sept. 11 by state and federal agencies to restrict access to a host of data previously available to the public.

For example, OMB Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based government watchdog group, tracks the growing list of state and federal agencies that have restricted access to Internet databases since Sept. 11—including those compiled under community right-to-know laws—on the use, transportation and storage of hazardous substances in communities.

In October, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a new policy memo to all federal agencies about Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which reads in part: “When you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records, in whole or in part, you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions unless they lack a sound legal basis...”

The Bush administration is also in the process of issuing new security guidelines to control government information at libraries that could be used by terrorists.

“Since the Sept. 11 attacks,” said Sherman. “The USGS CD-ROM is the only document that the superintendent of documents has requested to be withdrawn from depository libraries.”

Add a comment