The US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has strayed into dangerous territory with its proposal to limit access to information on energy infrastructure.
In fact, the commission's proposed expansion of official secrecy is more dangerous than the terrorist threat to which it responds.
The terrorist threat is real, of course. It must be taken seriously and dealt with accordingly.
But compromising core principles of democratic governance is no way to go about the task.
FERC on Sept. 5 issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that is supposed to "safeguard" what the commission calls critical energy infrastructure information (CEII).
The rulemaking would increase the difficulty of retrieving public information about "critical infrastructure" that, in FERC's words:
- Relates to the production, generation, transportation, transmission, or distribution of energy.
- Could be useful to a person in planning an attack on critical infrastructure.
- Is exempt from mandatory disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
- And gives strategic information beyond the location of the critical infrastructure.
Any such move away from information disclosure, even for the sake of security in perilous times, compromises democracy. Once the process begins, once officials start making decisions about what information to reveal and what to withhold, it's difficult to reverse.
In the context of energy security, moreover, it would be self-defeating.
Transparency has improved security of the overall energy-delivery system. Any move toward obscurity detracts from the system's ability to adjust to disruption. It therefore creates opportunity for malcontents who think they benefit from disruptive acts.
The US is an open society, the most open society in the world. The benefits of being so open are many and profound.
Openness, however, involves exposure to physical risk. This is why it is sometimes necessary to fight for freedom.
The way to respond to the vulnerability that comes with openness is not to become less open. It is rather to assure fanatics that they and their political agendas can't survive American responses to assaults on its freedom.
The US must remain fiercely committed first to defending the values on which it is founded and only then to defending pipelines and power plants.
(Online Sept. 6, 2002; author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)