Terrorism Database Speaks of Environmental Secrecy

December 3, 2008

For the past decade, federal and state officials have put an immense amount of environmental information behind a veil of secrecy, justifying it on the grounds that the information could help terrorists. A look at the most comprehensive open-source terrorism database offers strong evidence that such fears are ill-founded.

In other words, secrecy advocates have terrorized the nation. We have this from the Department of Homeland Security — or at least from the Global Terrorism Database maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, which is funded by DHS at the University of Maryland.

Database geeks can find all kinds of interesting facts in the GTD — but that's another story. And not much of an environmental story, as it turns out. Which is the point.

The threat of terrorism has been invoked to justify secrecy about the environmental, health, and safety vulnerabilities of chemical plants, energy facilities, pipelines, drinking water plants, dams, levees, hazmat transport, and many other things that environmental reporters routinely cover. The three biggest bugaboos have been chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of mass destruction — which the federal government has done comparatively little to protect the public from during the same decade. That may be the big secret.

A few queries to the GTD tend to offer a very different picture of the terrorist threat.

Of the more than 80,000 terrorist attacks logged in the database (and it only goes up to 2004), only 122 involved chemical agents. Most attacks used explosives or firearms.

Of the 80,000 attacks in the GTD, only 1044 took place in the United States. The most prominent perpetrators of attacks in the U.S. (when known) were anti-abortion groups, right-wing extremists, and other home-grown extremists.

Of the 80,000 GTD attacks, only 9 used biological weapons. All 9 were part of the anthrax attacks of October 2001. According to the Justice Department, these attacks were not perpetrated by foreign terrorists like al Qaeda, but by a federal employee working in an ultra-secure federal bioweapons lab.