• Is it still a secret if everyone knows?

    April 27, 2011

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Other Ideas

    secretsIs it still a secret if everyone knows?

    Such is the dilemma Wikileaks poses for the government. Fearful to verify that anything on Wikileaks is authentic, and doubtless seeking to preserve the ironic freedom to prosecute anyone, someone, somewhere, someday for the leaks, the US Government insists on treating information available to anyone with Internet access as still highly classified.

    It works like this. The latest tranche of files from Wikileaks, published this week by the New York Times and others, includes extensive information from (ok, allegedly) Guantanamo. Sit down in an Internet café in Karachi or Kabul and read to your heart’s content interrogation notes and prisoner records. This is of course presuming you are not a defense attorney for one of those held in Guantanamo.

    If you are a defense attorney, then the US Department of Justice has already informed you that the documents remain legally classified even after they were made public. Because you the lawyer were granted a security clearance to enable you to even meet with your client, you are obligated to treat the readily available files “in accordance with all relevant security precautions and safeguards,” handling them, for example, only in secure government facilities. Somehow, if DOJ caught you working with the files in an Internet café, you could lose your security clearance.

    These kinds of fear-mongering rules have lead to some bizarre situations. A friend at ICE says that visa extension applications that include Wikileaked docs as proof of persecution, printed off the web, have to be treated as classified inside the office and stored accordingly to avoid a security violation by the ICE worker (not the potential beneficiary, who is somehow not covered by the security laws.) Another colleague who has legitimate access to classified material told me that he finds the search functions for Wikileaks available through the Guardian newspaper so superior to the government’s internal search tools that he now routinely looks for documents online, makes notes, and then later doubles back to cite official references in his in-house drafting.

    The State Department issued very clear guidance to its employees about viewing Wikileaked material on their work computers:

    Personnel are reminded that unauthorized disclosure of classified documents in the media (print, blog, website) does not mean that the documents have been declassified. You must continue to abide by the classification markings on any documents in your possession and handle them with the appropriate protections, even when they have been posted on Internet websites.

    If a State Department employee wants to save some of the documents for a clearly work-related reason, s/he “should put all saved documents in a computer directory folder that begins as ‘Wikileaks published material’. Any classification markings on the downloaded material should be retained. If any such material is printed out, however, it must be handled as a classified document and stored in a classified container.”

    So, if you download a still-classified document from the web, you can store it on your unclassified computer. However, if you print that same document out, it must be stored in a safe rated for classified material. Got it?

    The State Department has also used its firewall software to block some Wikileaks sites inside Foggy Bottom, including of course the main Wikileaks page, but also a number of blogs (a favorite, Toms Dispatch, is among the blocked sites months after a limited reference to the leaked data.) One is tempted to shout “Censorship!” but realistically it is just likely bureaucratic idleness about adjusting the software. Bigger media outlets, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, which routinely publish Wikileaked material, are not blocked.

    Many State employees, spooked over fear of security violations, only access routine articles on Wikileaks from their home computers. The New York Times reported that in December, Columbia University warned international relations students that commenting on the documents disclosed by WikiLeaks online or linking to them might endanger their chances of getting a government job. The same month, the United States Agency for International Development told workers that viewing the documents on an unclassified computer at work or home could violate security rules that govern their employment. In February, an Air Force unit cautioned that employees and even their family members could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act for looking at the WikiLeaks documents at home.

    People end up going along with these makes-no-sense rules. Fear is perhaps the most powerful tool available in a police state, and as effective a means of control as any taser. My dog won’t leave the yard for fear of being whacked with a rolled up newspaper, even when no one is around to enforce the rules. We don’t have or need a fence. She has learned that getting along under an authoritarian regime means remembering to allow fear to control her, however absurd the rules and however unlikely the punishment.

    Woof! Good doggy gets a Scooby snack!

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