WASHINGTON -- Federal officials should consider reopening public access to about three dozen websites withdrawn from the Internet after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a government-financed study says, because the sites pose little or no risk to homeland security.
The Rand Corp. said the overwhelming majority of federal websites that reveal information about airports, power plants, military bases, and other potential terrorist targets need not be censored because similar or better information is easily available elsewhere.
Rand identified four Web pages that might merit the restrictions imposed after the attacks.
"It's a good time to take a closer look at the choices that they made at the time," said John Baker, principal author of the study, which was funded by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the government's intelligence mapping agency.
Advocates of open government said the report shows the Bush administration acted rashly after the suicide attacks when it scrubbed numerous government websites.
"It was a gigantic mistake, and I hope the study brings some rationality back to this policy," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy. "Up to now, decisions have been made on a knee-jerk basis."
Rand's National Defense Research Institute identified 629 Internet-accessible federal databases that contain critical data about specific locations. Coauthor Beth Lachman said they "appeared to be the most sensitive sites" among 5,000 federal Web pages the researchers checked.
The study, conducted between mid-2002 and mid-2003, found no federal websites that contained target information essential to a terrorist -- in other words, information a terrorist would need to launch an attack. It identified four databases -- less than 1 percent of the 629 -- where restricting access probably would enhance homeland security. None was available to the general public anymore. Those sites included two devoted to pipelines, one to nuclear reactors, and one to dams.
Researchers recommended that officials evaluate 66 databases with some useful information, but they did not anticipate restrictions would be needed because similar or more useful data probably could be easily found elsewhere.
The remaining 559 databases "are probably not significant for addressing attackers' information needs and do not warrant any type of public restriction," the report said. It said that any information they contain that could be useful to terrorists is easily obtained elsewhere, often by simple, legal observation in an open society.