Tips for terrorists on Web

January 24, 2002|By Nick Nichols

WASHINGTON -- There's an old truism that says "information is power," and activist groups are using the Internet to provide terrorists with information despite the horror of Sept. 11 -- giving them the power to kill and maim still more innocent people across our country.

Unbelievably, our open society has created an open door to information that could help terrorists attack chemical plants, storage facilities and other tempting targets.

Activist groups are posting this information on the Internet for all to see. The postings have created a user-friendly "Terrorism for Dummies" guidebook in cyberspace.

Allowing this guidebook to remain accessible makes as much sense as Achilles wearing a T-shirt saying "Shoot me in the heel" or Superman setting up a Web site offering free kryptonite.

This isn't a matter of "the people's right to know." It's a matter of life and death.

How does the public benefit by learning what's the best oil refinery to attack to cause an environmental disaster? The locations of chemical plants with the greatest potential to cause widespread death and destruction if bombed? Helpful hints that could lead to break-ins at water treatment plants and the poisoning of our water supply?

The terrorism guidebook is an outgrowth of the 1990 Clean Air Act, which requires industrial plants to submit risk management plans to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The plans include documentation of the number of fatalities a chemical release could cause so companies and emergency workers can be prepared for serious accidents.

President Bill Clinton's EPA administrator, Carol Browner, decided the agency would post the information on the Internet in 1999 -- rejecting warnings by the FBI, the CIA, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and others that this information would give terrorists a valuable weapon.

The EPA posted much of the data on its own Web site and made all of it available in 50 government-run reading rooms.

The EPA also allowed self-appointed "public interest" groups such as Greenpeace and OMB Watch to collect all the data and post it to their Web sites.

Now anyone with Internet access can gather extensive information about facilities, vulnerabilities and potential fatalities on a city-by-city basis.

Anything not on the Web sites is sent in minutes to the requester's e-mail address. The EPA took the information off its Web site after Sept. 11, but Greenpeace and other environmental groups refused to follow suit on their Web sites.

"That information should be guarded," warns John Eversole of the fire chiefs' group, "and given only to those who have a need to know," such as emergency responders and security authorities.

"It is these Web sites that make the chemicals far more dangerous," notes Tom Randall, environmental affairs director for the National Center for Public Policy Research. "Their real purpose is to stir up public anxiety and get people to demand that plants be closed and our reliance on chemicals reduced.

Even worse, the sites make it much more difficult for government and industry to safeguard facilities and lives."

It's time to pull the plug on these Web sites that are a terrorist's dream and a national nightmare.

Will these "public interest" organizations and their supporters be held accountable and liable for any death and destruction made possible by information they provide?

Perhaps this subject will come up during a Feb. 12 hearing on eco-terrorism called by Republican Rep. Scott McInnis of Colorado.

In the meantime, our government faces two choices -- act now to rein in groups such as Greenpeace before disaster strikes or wait until terrorists strike again and kill more Americans before acting.

Allowing the "Terrorism for Dummies" guide to remain in cyberspace makes dummies of us all and could send more innocent people to their graves.

Nick Nichols, chief executive officer of a communications management firm in Washington, is author of Rules for Corporate Warriors: How to Fight and Survive Attack Group Shakedowns (Free Enterprise Press, 2001).

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