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Efforts to hide sensitive data pit 9/11 concerns against safety

(The following article by Christopher Drew was posted on the New York Times website on March 5.)

WASHINGTON -- They are just pieces of cardboard, and they cover less than a square foot on the side of railroad tank car. But behind them lies a post-9/11 competition between public safety and national security.

For decades, emergency-response teams approaching train wrecks have peered at the signs through binoculars to see what dangerous chemicals might be leaking. But federal officials will soon decide on a proposal to remove the placards from all tank cars. Their fear is that terrorists could use them to lock in on targets for highly toxic attacks.

The idea has sparked an outcry from firefighters and rail workers, who say removing the signs could endanger their lives. They say federal officials seem more focused on guarding against a terrorist attack than on the daily threat of accidents.

"There's this feeling that you have to secure everything possible in every way possible for every possible kind of terrorist attack," Garry L. Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said.

The dispute illustrates a growing push to mask sensitive data about the nation's industrial base from the prying eyes of potential terrorists. In the tug of war over tank cars and other industrial information, critics question whether the move toward secrecy is overwhelming safety concerns and even chilling debates over how to eliminate the vulnerabilities.

People who live near chemical and nuclear plants, dams and oil and gas pipelines complain that it has become harder to find out about disaster plans and environmental hazards, and some have sued for more information. Engineering reports have been stripped from government Web sites, and several agencies are creating new controls on sensitive information that go far beyond the wide-ranging classification system built in the cold war.

Federal officials say although they are trying to strike a reasonable balance, some clashes are inevitable, and more are likely to occur. If delicate information leaks out, "it gives our adversaries too much of a picture of what our vulnerabilities are," Jack L. Johnson Jr., chief security officer at the Department of Homeland Security, said.

Internal government e-mail messages show that months before the train bombings last March in Madrid, transportation officials stopped the Defense Intelligence Agency from releasing a report on rail vulnerabilities in the United States.

The messages, which were obtained by The New York Times from a former federal official, show that the report was intended to spark debate among officials on improving rail security. But after complaints from the industry, one senior transportation official helped block the report by arguing that if it became public "I could foresee this paper being a handout in the next session of Al Qaeda's rail-attack course."

A similar secrecy question is unfolding in Washington. On Tuesday, the District of Columbia Council extended a ban on shipping hazardous cargo through Washington.

Even as it opposed the ban, the CSX railroad company quietly re-routed some cargo away from Capitol Hill last spring. But citing security, railroad and security officials refused for months to tell the Council about the rerouting. It turns out that the railroad simply shifted the cargoes to tracks in other neighborhoods. Federal and railroad officials said the other tracks seemed less likely to be targets.

A Council member, Kathy Patterson, said, "There was just a total alliance between the homeland security and railroad officials that was very disheartening."

Another hot area of debate over secrecy is the atomic energy industry. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has stashed away an enormous trove of documents about nuclear power plants, suspending access to much of its Web site while weeding out reports that might aid terrorists.

A spokeswoman for the commission, Sue F. Gagner, said that access to 380,000 documents was suspended last October and that 120,000 had been made available again.

"We think it's very important to be diligent about having information that could potentially be helpful to a terrorist," Ms. Gagner said.

The commission has also issued classified orders on how the plants guard against terror attacks, and citizens' groups have been fighting in court to demand public input.

"You can hide the information, but if the vulnerability still exists, the bad guys will find it," said Gary D. Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a group in Washington that supports more openness. "So let's reduce the vulnerability instead."

Mr. Bass said similar debates had prompted some complexes like a sprawling sewage plant in Washington to switch to less-toxic chemicals.

In some instances, new dictates have eclipsed broader health and safety concerns.

Living Rivers, an environmental group in Utah, sued a federal agency after it had refused to release flood maps showing what areas would be inundated if major dams failed. A federal judge ruled for the agency, saying he agreed that releasing the maps "could increase the risk of an attack on the dams."

The shift to greater secrecy began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Mr. Johnson, of the Homeland Security Department, said a captured training manual showed that Al Qaeda expected to glean 80 percent of what it needed to plan attacks in the United States from open sources.

The government has turned to a smorgasbord of new controls for withholding sensitive - but unclassified - information.

The Homeland Security Department has designations like "Sensitive Homeland Security Information" and "Protected Critical Infrastructure Information." Airport workers use "Sensitive Security Information" to hold back the details of pat-downs. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission stamps "Critical Energy Infrastructure Information" on pipeline maps.

Officials said many companies had long resisted disclosing security flaws to the government out of fear of leaks. Mr. Johnson said that the department was blending what it obtained from the companies with intelligence about terrorist intentions and that it intended to share much of that analysis with local officials who agree to keep it confidential.

Sometimes the battles are more visible. Since chlorine leaking from a derailed tank car killed nine people and injured hundreds last month in South Carolina, the fight over the railroad placards has emerged as the most potent symbol of the debate.

The Homeland Security and Transportation Departments have been considering whether to remove the placards since August.

Firefighters, railroad workers and large chemical companies are adamant about keeping the placards. Statistics show that chemicals leak from dozens of rail cars a year and that deaths occur periodically.

The chlorine placard is black and white. It has a skull and crossbones and the number 1017, the chlorine code. Without placards, "we'd be completely in the dark" at many crashes, said Joe Ashbaker, a supervisor in the San Bernardino County Fire Department in California.

The railroads have their doubts. "We were for the placards, until 9/11, when it became clear they presented a security risk," the industry's lobbying group, the Association of American Railroads, said in a statement.

The railroads also say they are working to create a system that meets security and safety needs.

But two studies by the Transportation Department have shown that the alternatives, electronic systems that could transmit lists of chemicals on a train by radio or satellite, would be more expensive, cumbersome and less effective on safety. Texas A&M University is finishing another study.

Jamie Conrad, a lawyer for the American Chemistry Council, which lobbies for large chemical makers, said he could see how a placard might "advertise a little bit" the best cars to attack.

"But where we come down is that if you take it off, you know that people will be killed in accidents," Mr. Conrad said. "And you're basically balancing that against the theoretical prospect that terrorists might be lurking on that corner."

Walt Bogdanich and Jenny Nordberg contributed reporting for this article.

Monday, March 7, 2005

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