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Can the ocean floor's topography be a state secret? The U.S. Navy is now deciding whether to deny U.S. scientists access to highly detailed bathymetrie data because of security imperatives it says it can't completely reveal. Government officials and scientists interviewed for this artcle agree that the central issue is the costs and benefits of secrecy in a scientifically open society.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has mapped nearly 128,000 km2 of the seafloor in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, but since 1985, when Vice Admiral John Poindexter of the National Security Council banned the distribution of maps and charts produced in the program at the request of the Navy, scientists haven't been able to see or use the high-resolution sonar data. The Navy is now considering extending that restriction to all multibeam bathymetry acquired through federally sponsored research anywhere in the world.