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Sunshine on a Rainy Week

You may not have heard the exciting news, but this is Sunshine Week.

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the sponsor of this occasion, we should spend these seven days engaged in “dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” Who could be against that?

But let’s dig a little deeper. Among the things exercising the advocates of “open government” these days is the fact that, on the basis of security concerns, the Bush administration has been withdrawing from circulation lots of official documents–more than a million of them–from the National Archive in Washington D.C. Some of the withdrawn documents apparently are old. Some more than a century old.

The Associated Press told the story in a March 13 dispatch. “In some cases, entire file boxes were removed without significant review”; inside them may have been a wealth of innocuous materials. Tom Blanton, who runs the National Security Archive at George Washington University, finds this to be “a scandal, a case of misplaced priorities.” Patrice McDermott, who heads up a web-based organization called OpenTheGovernment.org, calls it “a questionable use of tax dollars.”

And it certainly does sound questionable, perhaps even worse.

But there is more to this story.

The AP report goes on to inform us that many of the documents removed from circulation “include the presumably dangerous, such as nearly half an enormous database from the Federal Emergency Management Agency with information about all federal facilities.” They also encompassed about “80 cubic feet of naval facility plans and blueprints.”

The entire effort to remove official documents from public view was set in motion after September 11 to safeguard “records of concern,” i.e., reports, blueprints, material pertaining to nuclear-technology, photos or sketches of sensitive installations, anything else that could be useful to terrorists.

Yes, a lot of perfectly mundane information was caught up in the sweep, including architectural drawings of LBJ’s presidential library in Austin, Texas. But as archive officials told the AP “We just felt we couldn’t take the time and didn’t always have the expertise” to review them all. The more urgent task was to get the sensitive ones–like information about the vulnerability of chemical plants and recipes for making biological warfare agents–off the shelves and away from terrorist hands.

Is this a scandal? Is the Bush administration wasting taxpayer money to pursue its obsession with secrecy? Or is it something else?

We certainly do need more dialogue about open government in the age of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. A nuclear explosion over New York would be brighter than a thousand suns. Let’s use the occasion of Sunshine Week to engage in seven days of dialogue about that.


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