In the weeks before New York City hosted the Republican National Convention last August, security officials spent millions securing the area around Madison Square Garden against a possible terrorist attack. They set up barricades, installed extra cameras on buildings, and assigned extra police to the streets. John Young, a 69-year-old New Yorker, was also surveying the neighborhoods. He spent hours wandering around midtown Manhattan, snapping photos of unprotected local streets and other vulnerable areas near the convention site. He even snapped the location of a major pipeline that carries highly explosive natural gas into Manhattan.
Young was not working for the NYPD or the FBI. Nor was he part of a terrorist plot. A self-employed architect, he claims to be just a concerned citizen, someone who thinks we’re all safer if there are no government secrets.
So what did he do with all that sensitive information? He posted it on the popular website he runs, which typically gets 50,000 visitors in a day. Young featured dozens of maps and pictures, as well as observations about ways terrorists might attack the convention. Just trying to help, Young says.
Security officials didn’t see it that way. The company that owned the gas main took down a sign, photographed by Young, to make the line harder to spot. Young has been visited by FBI agents in the past, who made it clear they expect him to report suspicious inquiries to the Bureau.
Young may well have put lives at risk, but he doesn’t regret it. “The more information you have, the better protected you are,” he argues. Young has no shortage of information on his website: maps, aerial photographs and security details about everything from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve to a chemical weapons depot in Alabama to nuclear-weapons storage sites in Georgia and New Mexico.
You’d think that websites like Young’s would be illegal, especially since the Internet is one of the most critical battlegrounds in our war against radical Islamists. Terrorists not only use encrypted online messages to communicate, but they scan the Web for intelligence. “We shouldn’t kid ourselves. Our adversaries are all reading the Internet,” says Roger Cressey, a former White House national security official. “So those preaching freedom of information need to be very careful.”
Yet there’s little anyone can do to stop people like Young. “You’re protected by the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. It’s hard to prosecute someone who uses public sources to pull together information — even when that information clearly shouldn’t be revealed,” says Stewart Baker, a technology lawyer and former general counsel for the National Security Agency. “If the material is leaked to you, you can probably publish that too. Unfortunately, it’s not illegal to be a jerk.”
Recently I surfed the Web and checked out Young’s site. Among other items, I found detailed maps showing how to reach a secret government bunker that’s reportedly one of Vice President Dick Cheney’s emergency hideouts. There were also photos of the front entrance. Young isn’t the only one using cyberspace in a grossly irresponsible way. Another website gave me personal information about government officials and police officers, including their home addresses.
To understand what nuts and zealots can do with this sort of information, recall what happened in the early 1990s when three abortion doctors were killed after pro-life extremists created “wanted” posters displaying the physicians’ names and photographs. A few years later, a website showed pictures of other abortion doctors, and listed the murdered ones with their names crossed out. Eventually the site’s Web server shut it down.
No wonder police officers are unnerved by the growing number of anti-cop websites. One of them includes photographs of people at a demonstration who are identified as plainclothes cops.
At another site are the home addresses and phone numbers of hundreds of officials around the country, from federal judges to mayors to attorneys general. You can bet this isn’t about sending people birthday cards. Who else but crackpots or cold-blooded terrorists would want maps and aerial photos of the homes of CIA officials like director Porter Goss — as John Young cheerfully provides?
How frustrating that politicians who want to stand up to these websites find themselves stymied. When Anthony Weiner, a Democratic member of Congress from New York, discovered that a website was revealing the home addresses of undercover officers, he proposed a bill that would make such disclosures illegal. “Free speech does not include the ability to terrorize officers,” Representative Weiner said in a press release.
Well, maybe it does. When others have pressed for similar legislation on the state level, they’ve found that it’s extremely difficult to clamp down on a site unless it publishes a clear and open threat or calls for a terror attack on a specific target.
That may leave Weiner and every other concerned citizen hoping that Web-hosting providers will shut down dangerous websites voluntarily. But don’t count on it.
Perhaps if more of us complain, that could change. One thing’s for certain: We can’t persuade the people who get a thrill exposing dangerous facts to sober up. When I asked John Young if there was anything he wouldn’t reveal on his site — a fault in the President’s Secret Service detail, for instance — he said, “Well, I’m actually looking for that information right now.” Wonderful.