The Silliness of Secrecy

This is a great article on some of the ridiculous effects of government secrecy. (Unfortunately, you have to register to read it.)

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has advised airplane pilots against flying near 100 nuclear power plants around the country or they will be forced down by fighter jets. But pilots say there's a hitch in the instructions: aviation security officials refuse to disclose the precise location of the plants because they consider that "SSI" -- Sensitive Security Information.

"The message is; 'please don't fly there, but we can't tell you where there is,'" says Melissa Rudinger of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a trade group representing 60% of American pilots.

Determined to find a way out of the Catch-22, the pilots' group sat down with a commercial mapping company, and in a matter of days plotted the exact geographical locations of the plants from data found on the Internet and in libraries. It made the information available to its 400,000 members on its Web site -- until officials from the Transportation Security Administration asked them to take the information down. "Their concern was that [terrorists] mining the Internet could use it," Ms. Rudinger says.

And:

For example, when a top Federal Aviation Administration official testified last year before the 9/11 commission, his remarks were broadcast live nationally. But when the administration included a transcript in a recent report on threats to commercial airliners, the testimony was heavily edited. "How do you redact something that is part of the public record?" asked Rep. Carolyn Maloney, (D., N.Y.) at a recent hearing on the problems of government overclassification. Among the specific words blacked out were the seemingly innocuous phrase: "we are hearing this, this, this, this and this."

Government officials could not explain why the words were withheld, other than to note that they were designated SSI.

Posted on March 24, 2005 at 9:48 AM • 21 Comments

Comments

Simon JohnsonMarch 24, 2005 10:09 AM

When did the brain Rot set in? In an ideal world, complete secrecy with regard to the location of nuclear power plants would increase security. The tragedy is that this isn't an ideal world.

The location of a power plant is not secret. My local powerplant towers across the sky line for twenty-five miles in all directions. Getting access to a power plant isn't that difficult either - there are thousands of individuals who are involved in the day to day running of a nuclear power plant.

Rather than chilling free-speech (remember, the TSA effectively issued a take-down notice to the pilots group), a much more effective counter measure would be to replace the nuclear reactors with pebble bed alternatives as they're pretty much impossible to melt down.

Bruce, why don't you put your name forward for the role of Head of Homeland Security? The world could do with someone sensible in charge of America's security.

Simon.

Joost RemijnMarch 24, 2005 10:16 AM

This is a great article on some of the ridiculous effects of government secrecy. (Unfortunately, you have to register to read it.)

Hmmm, it looks like i need to subscribe actually. It talks about subscribing not registering. Is it really necessary to link to subscriber-only info?

NylarthotepMarch 24, 2005 10:51 AM

Wow. That is just too stupid. Especially the part about having the AOPA remove info from their website that they themselves legally gleaned from the internet. If they did it, what makes the TSA think that terrorists haven't already done it.

I'll also bet that they expect full compliance irrespective of the possibility of the public being able to comply.

There needs to be a new award for the stupidest government issued statements of decrees.

Bruce SchneierMarch 24, 2005 11:07 AM

"Hmmm, it looks like i need to subscribe actually. It talks about subscribing not registering. Is it really necessary to link to subscriber-only info?"

No. It's not necessary. But since I don't have to pay by the blog entry, I figured it was better to quote extensively than not post it at all.

Roy OwensMarch 24, 2005 11:09 AM

Would not the street address of the White House now be 'SSI'? There was a movie with a title based on that address: how will Homeland Security 'redact' the title of a movie released in VHS and DVD? Or do they just tackle the easy problems?

ProbitasMarch 24, 2005 12:40 PM

"Would not the street address of the White House now be 'SSI'? There was a movie with a title based on that address: how will Homeland Security 'redact' the title of a movie released in VHS and DVD? Or do they just tackle the easy problems?"

No, they are tackling the difficult problems, as well. But I am sure that the concept of false positives is not lost on the people who are charged with reclassification. If we view their actions as silly, we will eventually stop paying attention to what is being reclassified. That is when the tough issues will be dealt with.

BillMarch 24, 2005 12:53 PM

Yet another example how the government's naivete regarding terrorists FUBAR's everything for the rest of us.

TimMarch 24, 2005 1:39 PM

This reminds of a couple of things: "double secret probation" from the movie "Animal House", and the song (I know it from Monty Python) "How Sweet to be an Idiot."

Davi OttenheimerMarch 24, 2005 2:29 PM

"Government officials could not explain why the words were withheld, other than to note that they were designated SSI."

They could tell you, but then they would have to kill you.

ArikMarch 24, 2005 7:08 PM

Am I the only one here who think that SSI and the way it is currently used is a danger to democracy? Or is this comment also designated SSI?

-- Arik

AOPAerMarch 24, 2005 9:35 PM

The complete set of maps published and then redacted by AOPA is available at www.archive.org. The information depicted differs in no substantive way from the textual locations ("13 miles west of Hartford, CT") available on numerous web sites.

Petr KadlecMarch 25, 2005 7:07 AM

I don't really understand that. In Czechia (e.g.) each nuclear facility is in a prohibited airspace, a list of which is specified in the publicly available AIP.
Do you mean that the airspace around nuclear powerplants is not restricted, but the airforce would act as if it was and force you out without any legal reason to do so?

Petr KadlecMarch 25, 2005 7:09 AM

Roy Owens: There is a much more simple solution: Just rename the street, so that the address changes and the movie's name is not valid anymore. For security reasons, you might want to rename the street every ca 6 months, so the terrorists would not be able to gain access to such sensitive information. :o)

AnonymousMarch 28, 2005 11:19 AM

The list at http://cryptome.org/npp/62npp-eyeball.htm is quite interesting - especially the links to fema.gov that strangely no longer work...

But the NRC links do work, at the moment.

This is just as stupid as forbidding railway tankcars from displaying hazmat placards... "But the terrorists will read them and derail trains!"

Or, the trains will derail on their own, because accidents do happen, and first responders get poisoned because that can't tell what's leaking from the tankcar.

So very, very stupid.

Israel TorresMarch 28, 2005 11:57 AM

ever since 911 our defenses also "decided" to point some of our "radar systems" inside our boundaries... of course "they" couldn't tell us otherwise at the time... funny that.

Israel Torres

DavidMarch 28, 2005 4:06 PM

" Bruce, why don't you put your
name forward for the role of
Head of Homeland Security? The
world could do with someone
sensible in charge of America's
security."

Because, Simon, Bruce does not have the removal of our protections under the Bill of Rights on tap as his primary agenda, and so he cannot successfully win the nomination.

JenniferMarch 30, 2005 4:28 PM

I'm a nuclear engineering student, and we have posters of Nuclear Power Plant sites in the US in multiple classrooms of my building.

Is the government assuming terrorists don't know how to use Google?*

Sigh.

*
http://www.google.com/search?...

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