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Feds Block WikiLeaks From Own Workers to ‘Protect’ Info

Ewen MacAskin for The Guardian:

The Obama administration is banning hundreds of thousands of federal employees from calling up the WikiLeaks site on government computers because the leaked material is still formally regarded as classified.

The Library of Congress tonight joined the education department, the commerce department and other government agencies in confirming that the ban is in place.

Although thousands of leaked cables are freely available on the Guardian, New York Times and other newspaper websites, as well as the WikiLeaks site, the Obama administration insists they are still classified and, as such, have to be protected.

Seriously?

Look, I’m as angry about these leaks as the next guy.  But they’re already out there.  It’s simply absurd to ban people who have security clearances from looking at material that anyone else on the planet with Internet access can see.   Indeed, while I disagree with most of Juan Cole‘s analysis on the WikiLeaks matter, he’s spot on here, calling the policy “just plain stupid” and adding, “I don’t want my intelligence analysts not knowing about the fall-out from the wikileaks cables!”

UPDATE:  Commenter Gawaine offers an interesting pushback:

Imagine that someone works on classified program Z, and know classified facts A, B, and C. I also know that there’s a cover story out there D, which isn’t true.,

Let’s say that WikiLeaks has facts about A, B, and D. A government employee starts getting into conversations with people who aren’t cleared to know that D is untrue, or to know about C – but it gets hard to remember that, since all of the facts are out there in the public record.

If the worker instead avoids those conversations, they don’t get tempted into furthering disclosure.

The other reason that makes sense to me is that it avoids contaminating computers with classified data. Imagine a guy named Joe who’s been sloppy about handling classified data – occasionally bringing it home and working on his own computer with it. If Joe also has stuff he’s downloaded from WikiLeaks on his computer, it makes it that much harder to find the things that aren’t on WikiLeaks, but also shouldn’t be on his computer.

This is actually plausible.  Indeed, recalling which pieces of information you know came from public sources vice classified ones is already rather difficult.  There’s a nebulous category of things wherein any number of individual facts are available through newspapers and other public sources but the aggregation of those facts into a narrative is classified.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. gawaine says:

    I look at it as a means of preventing workers with clearances from getting into unhelpful discussions.

    Imagine that someone works on classified program Z, and know classified facts A, B, and C. I also know that there’s a cover story out there D, which isn’t true.,

    Let’s say that WikiLeaks has facts about A, B, and D. A government employee starts getting into conversations with people who aren’t cleared to know that D is untrue, or to know about C – but it gets hard to remember that, since all of the facts are out there in the public record.

    If the worker instead avoids those conversations, they don’t get tempted into furthering disclosure.

    The other reason that makes sense to me is that it avoids contaminating computers with classified data. Imagine a guy named Joe who’s been sloppy about handling classified data – occasionally bringing it home and working on his own computer with it. If Joe also has stuff he’s downloaded from WikiLeaks on his computer, it makes it that much harder to find the things that aren’t on WikiLeaks, but also shouldn’t be on his computer.

    These headaches are things people already encounter with partially declassified programs. A friend of mine freaked out when he saw the – still marked as classified – docs from a special access program at the Air and Space Museum.

    Finally, if, out of all the bizarre regulations that touch people with clearances and federal employees, this is the thing that strikes you as too much, you need to get out more.

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  2. Mithras says:

    Aside from the theory of stupidity (which is the simplest explanation, I know), this could also be a date point for two other theories:
    (1) the U.S. considers the information in the cables unimportant, and
    (2) the U.S. does not value the work product of its intelligence analysts.

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  3. JKB says:

    Your first mistake is thinking that there is a logic to government regulation. Although, as gawaine explains there is a logic to these rules if you start from a certain point of view.

    Also, for those unfamiliar, DC spends a lot of time keeping secrets from itself, it is the city’s game. In the rumor and scandal arena (unclassified), the people at HQ will spend weeks whispering and winking while we in the field knew the facts all along simple because the further away from DC you are the less they consider you a threat and so you learn things without all the BS.

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  4. Jack says:

    Perhaps I haven’t read the stories on this matter closely enough, but I haven’t seen anything indicating that government employees with clearances cannot look at the material.

    It seems to me the administration is following the strict letter of the law, stating the material is still listed by the government as some level of confidential, and just because the material is readily available does not mean that classification has changed. That is the silly part, showing how inflexible and slow to react the government is.

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  5. DC Loser says:

    James – as someone who has a clearance and has seen the discussions inside the government concerning the Wikileaks documents, I have to remind the people that just because a document has been leaked does not mean it has been declassified. To those who have clearances, their ability to continue to hold those clearances are contingent on their ability to protect classified information and not violate US laws. These documents still carry their classification even though you can read it on the internet. So those us who desire to continue their employment know better than to that. You can do that from your home computer, but then that present another who set of potential problems down the road. Downloading these classified documents on an unclassified government computer presents another whole series of problems dealing with certification of said machines and the data that becomes comingled with the classified data. James Fallows had an informative discussion of this a few days ago.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/12/why-not-just-stamp-secret-across-the-front-page-of-the-ny-times/67310/

    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/12/more-about-secret-info-on-the-front-page/67423/

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  6. gawaine says:

    @Jack – I understand that everyone with a DoD clearance has been told not to look at the material. While the story was specifically about blocking access from federal servers (which is an intersection of that set, but obviously not a superset/subset), it’s also being blocked by defense contractors that I’m aware of.

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