PARIS – Americans abroad, whose votes could be crucial if the Nov. 2 presidential election proves close, are being denied access to a U.S. Department of Defense Web site designed to make it easier for them to cast absentee ballots.
The problem concerns blocks placed on access to the Web site of the Federal Voting Assistance Program (search), a Defense Department division to help expatriate American voters, including servicemen and women. The site's address is www.fvap.gov.
In an e-mail, a site Web manager, Susan Leader, said access is being refused to some Internet service providers that were used by hackers to attack U.S. government sites.
"There has been a marked increase in Web attacks on government computers, more as we get closer to the election. As a result, many Internet service providers have been blocked from accessing our site," Leader wrote.
Brett Rierson, a Hong Kong-based Democrat who wrote to Leader about the problem, provided The Associated Press with a copy of her e-mail. Rierson says he has tracked complaints from users of at least 27 ISPs in 25 countries who have been denied access to information from the Pentagon-run site.
He fears that U.S. citizens may be unable to vote if they can't download absentee ballot forms from www.fvap.gov or another site, www.overseasvote.com, which he co-founded, or collect the forms in person from an American embassy or consulate.
"It has the potential to disenfranchise anyone who does not live next to a U.S. Embassy," Rierson said in a telephone interview. But he also noted that the Democratic Party has set up the site www.overseasvote2004.com, where even people using blocked ISPs can still register.
The sister of Democratic hopeful Sen. John Kerry said she was "outraged" and accused the Pentagon of "gross bureaucratic negligence and indifference to the rights of American voters."
"That the Pentagon ... has chosen to surrender to unspecified 'hackers' without firing a single shot in defense of American democracy is suspect," Diana Kerry said in a statement.
Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke confirmed that some ISPs which have been used to launch attacks are barred access to military .mil and .gov sites. But she said the blocks were not related to the election nor designed to silence Democrat voting abroad — as some of them suspect.
"It would stop the Republicans, too, right? It's both sides. We're not just letting a certain party through," Krenke said.
Some U.S. government agencies have previously blocked access to their Web sites from Internet providers, and even entire countries, where hacking attempts have been detected. In March 2000, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., temporarily barred all Internet users in Brazil, Latin America's most populous country, from all of its Web sites.
Rierson said the 27 ISPs known to have been blocked included Yahoo Broadband in Japan, Wanadoo in France, and those of Telefonica in Spain and China Telecom, among others.