WASHINGTON - In the past few weeks, more than 1,200 internal State Department cables have been made public by WikiLeaks and received worldwide attention, including regular front-page coverage in The New York Times and countless other news organizations, including MSNBC.
But the Obama administration’s attempt to stop people from reading them continues unabated, creating mounting confusion and head-shaking among bewildered federal employees.
In one example, the Department of Homeland Security sent out a strongly worded memo to all employees and contractors telling them that not only may they not “download or attempt to download” any of the classified WikiLeaks memos onto their computers, they also may not “discuss the content” of such “potentially classified” documents “with persons who would not otherwise be authorized access,” according to a copy of a Dec. 3 memo from the department’s Office of Chief Information Officer.
That follows similar action by other federal agencies: The Library of Congress (where Congressional Research Service analysts work) and NASA, for example, have actually blocked access to the WikiLeaks websites from employee computers.
“This is driving secrecy policy over a cliff,” said Steven Aftergood, a national security specialist with the Federation of American Scientists and the author of the widely read Secrecy News blog who wrote about the issue on Friday. “It means that government employees are going to be the least informed people on the planet.”
As an example, Aftergood cites an e-mail he got from one DHS employee who had just received the department’s latest missive from Donna Roy, an official in the department’s information office. Strictly read, it appears to suggest that department employees and contractors could be guilty of a security violation if they access WikiLeaks cables from their personal computers, the employee noted.
“So, my grandmother would be allowed to access the cables, but not me. This seems ludicrous,” the DHS official wrote Aftergood. Aftergood shared the e-mail, with the name of the employee deleted, as well as the Dec. 3 memo from Roy.
“As someone who has spent many years with the USG [U.S. government] dealing with senior officials of foreign governments, it seems to me that the problem faced by CRS [Congressional Research Service] researchers … is going to be widespread across our government if we follow this policy. … I think more damage will be done by keeping the federal workforce largely in the dark about what other interested parties worldwide are going to be reading and analyzing.”
A DHS official, who asked not to be identified by name, acknowledged the department’s memo may have been worded “imprecisely.” The purpose was to prohibit employees from downloading WikiLeaks cables on their government computers, not necessarily their personal computers at home. (A similar memo from the Defense Department’s Threat Reduction Agency banning its employees and contractors from downloading Wiki memos does apply explicitly to “employees’ or contractors’ personally owned computers,” however.)
In any case, the DHS official said, the larger point was to remind all federal workers, as the White House OMB recently did, that classified State Department cables may not be shared with the public just because WikiLeaks or a news organization has published them.
“If something is not declassified officially, then it remains classified,” the official said.