Friday, June 05, 2009

The other day the NY Times reported that a highly confidential nuclear report had been leaked, detailing in its 267 pages the locations of every single atomic facility in the United States, which was only hitherto seen by the IAEA. Experts quoted agreed that no serious breach of security had been dealt, but in this reporter’s opinion it is a very impressive (in the negative sense) disclosure. The news report did not provide the link, surely their prerogative as a responsible conveyor of news and not state secrets.

But I was curious at this point, so I went ahead and emailed Steven Aftergood, who releases a bulletin called Secrecy News with the Federation of American Scientists. It was a simple request: is the report available online, and where can one find it. To my surprise, he gave me a hyperlink and I downloaded the whole thing, completely unredacted. It’s a stunning document, and quite disturbing. Maybe Iran should disclose its own inventory and then we’re on the up-and-up.

It is indicative of the information environment we have today that such an important document can be so easily accessed. I didn’t even have to file a FOIA request, which surely would have been rejected had the document not already been declassified, for reasons that remain obscure. With such universality that the Internet provides, it is extremely difficult to make sure that “the wrong hands” don’t get a hold of this kind of information. The document shows the actual addresses of our nuclear fuel stations and processing/enrichment plants, even with maps.

The aim of journalism is to get the public’s right to know in line with the state’s right to protect the public from those who would use knowledge that may be in the public interest into the very private interest of malevolent individuals and organizations. It’s a fine line, for sure, and the best strategy may be to approach it case-by-case. In this case, I think it was correct for the Times and other news organizations to not include the link that is still readily available to any fifth-grader with a dial-up anywhere in the world. For that reason, my decision here to omit Aftergood’s email address, much less the link he gave me, are strictly on a need-to-know basis. And to be honest, I’m not sure I need to know.

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