Thursday, December 16, 2010

US Government Employees Banned from Reading What Everyone Else in the World May Read

In an AP article published in Wednesday's Anchorage Daily News, I read one unbelievable sentence after another.  For instance,

The Air Force is blocking computer access to The New York Times and other media sites that published sensitive diplomatic documents released by the Internet site WikiLeaks, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.
Let me get this straight.  The New York Times has been blocked on Air Force computers, because it published some classified documents from WikiLeaks.  So Al Qaeda members, college students in Denmark, Taliban insurgents, and most anybody in the world with access to the internet can read things Air Force people aren't allowed to read.  Doesn't that put them at a disadvantage if they don't know things about the US government and other governments that everyone else knows? 

Even though the documents are available around the world, they are still considered classified and thus can't be read.  I seem to recall something about horses and barns. . .

But there's more:
The White House on Dec. 3 formally reminded all federal employees and government contractors that anyone without a security clearance is not permitted to read classified documents, such as the diplomatic messages published by WikiLeaks, even on a personal computer at home outside work hours.
So anyone who works for the government is banned from reading any of the Wikileaks documents, even at home on their personal computers.  Is anyone else scratching her head about this logic?  What exactly are they afraid of?  That a government employee might:
  •  read their bosses' gossip? 
  •  know something everyone else knows?
  •  sell the document to a spy?  
  •  post the document on a website?
  •  actually know something about  a particular cable and challenge its validity?
Does anyone wonder at the government's bizarre logic on security issues?  How can something that is available around the world on the internet and in newspapers still be considered classified?  Isn't this like the Emperor's New Clothes?  Does anyone not understand why people might wonder whether this sort of logic underlies other security policies, like electronic strip searches at airports? 

Let's see now.  The US is against censorship, is for freedom of the press, believes an informed electorate is the basis of democracy, and lectures other nations when they restrict their citizens' internet access. 

Just last January, according to the NY Times, Secretary of State Clinton was chastising China for censoring the internet: 
In a sweeping, pointed address that dealt with the Internet as a force for both liberation and repression, Mrs. Clinton said: “Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society or any other pose a threat to our economy, our government and our civil society. Countries or individuals that engage in cyber-attacks should face consequences and international condemnation.”[emphasis added]
. . . Mrs. Clinton also identified Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Vietnam and Uzbekistan as countries that constrain Internet freedom or persecute those who use the Web to circulate unpopular ideas. She pointed to an Egyptian blogger, Bassem Samir, who was in the audience at the Newseum in Washington for Mrs. Clinton’s speech and had been imprisoned by Egyptian authorities.

[Anyone else out there conjuring up an Egyptian newspaper writing, "President Mubarak
pointed to an Australian blogger, Julian Assange, who was in the audience at the Sphinx in Cairo for Mubarak's speech and had been imprisoned by British authorities"?]
. . .Mr. Malinowski [the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch] said: “I really thought this was groundbreaking. She showed no hesitation in naming countries, including U.S. allies, for suppressing speech on the Internet. She made a very strong case for connecting Internet freedom to core American national security interests.”[emphasis added]
OK, if you read the whole speech you can see that Mrs. Clinton does say there are limits to speech freedom
  • recruiting terrorists
  • hate speech
  • distributing stolen property (copyrighted material)
  • child pornography
but she also says,
But these challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the internet for peaceful political purposes.
She does go on to warn against hackers and cyber attacks:
States, terrorists, and those who would act as their proxies must know that the United States will protect our networks. Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society or any other pose a threat to our economy, our government, and our civil society. Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation. In an internet-connected world, an attack on one nation’s networks can be an attack on all. And by reinforcing that message, we can create norms of behavior among states and encourage respect for the global networked commons.
 But she had in mind, at that time, China's attack on Google.  Again from the January NY Times piece cited above:
While the details remained sketchy, her remarks could have far-reaching consequences, given the confrontation between Google and the Chinese government over the company’s assertion that its networks had been subject to a sophisticated attack that originated in mainland China. 

There are two basic issues here:

  1.   Internet security and preventing hackers from 
    1. interrupting the free flow of information  and from
    2. stealing private or classified information

      Clinton's speech covers work the State Department is doing to protect cyber security:
      "We have taken steps as a government, and as a Department, to find diplomatic solutions to strengthen global cyber security. We have a lot of people in the State Department working on this. . . And President Obama has just appointed a new national cyberspace policy coordinator who will help us work even more closely to ensure that everyone’s networks stay free, secure, and reliable." 
  2. Protecting citizens from government censorship of things the government doesn't want them to know.

But it seems to me that if you have something that other people want, you have a responsibility to protect it well.  For example, if banks just stacked up their money on the counters, people would be blaming the banks as well as the people who pocketed the money on their way out of the bank. And what about people outside the bank who might be given money from the people who were in the bank? 

And if the US sets up a computer system full of classified documents that some army private can get into and download 250,000 classified and unclassified cables and send off into the internet, people ought to be raising questions about the government's security as well as blaming the people who walked off with the cables before they start fussing at the person the cables were given to. 

The third transaction I made with my Visa card last September when we drove to Vancouver was blocked by Visa because the card wasn't where they thought it should be.  But the US put their classified cables on a computer system where 250,000 could be downloaded and sent off to WikiLeaks.  Sounds like stacks of cash on the bank counter to me. 

And now that many of the cables have been posted online for the world to see, US government employees are told they can't even use their own computers to read them, on their own time.  

And the US is doing everything it can to get WikiLeaks shut down. 

Isn't this pretty much what Clinton was telling China and Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Tunisia and Vietnam and Uzbekistan not to do?  Shutting down internet sites to prevent people from reading information the government didn't like?  Blocking their citizens' access to read what the rest of the world can read?

I understand there's a difference between classified documents and other news.  But WikiLeaks didn't hack into the US computers to my knowledge.  A US soldier  got the information and then passed it on.  I still don't understand how WikiLeaks is different from any other media outlet that publishes classified information leaked to them. The US government, to my knowledge, hasn't tried to shut off the New York Times' credit.   And what did they do when the NY Times published that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent?  They tried with the Pentagon Papers, but lost.  Why is WikiLeaks different?  

And even if you think the US should shut down WikiLeaks, how do you justify telling US government employees they can't read the published documents, even at home on their personal computers? 

Someone please tell me what I'm missing here. 


  1. I'm not sure what you're missing here, I will add however that the DOD routinely blocks their networks from accessing many, many websites, including this one and all other blogger sites.

    The part about reading classified information is a bit bizarre though, not sure what they're trying to accomplish with that.

  2. Every time I read about this, I shake my head. It reminds me of the list of 'forbidden' books that the Catholics used. No, no, don't look behind the curtain. I served this country and every day I find myself thinking of where I could emigrate.

  3. Well, from now on I wouldn't like to read such articles from US magazines when they complain about Hungarian democracy.


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