U.S. Censures Federal Workers, tells Employees that Reading Wikileaks is Breaking the Law

In the view of the US government, many of the WikiLeaks documents are still classified, and even though the documents have been published for all the world to see, reading the classified documents without clearance is illegal.  Some US government warnings issued to several governmental groups have suggested that a federal employee would be breaking the law by reading the leaked cables of classified State Department documents published on the WikiLeaks website.  The reasoning being, despite their wide release, the cables are still considered classified documents by the United States government.

Earlier, the Defense Department has issued a similar reminder to military personnel and contractors, stating that viewing the documents violates military policy even though those documents are freely available on several public Web sites.  The Defense Department also warned military personnel to avoid sites such as Fox News, the Guardian, New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and the Huffington Post – sites that are posting commentary on the leaked U.S. cables.

According to media reports, employees were instructed by the United States Office of Management and Budget on December 17, 2010 “not to access the WikiLeaks site and download posted documents since these documents are still classified”.  The memo was sent to general counsels at various government agencies explaining that the publication by Wikileaks does not alter the “classified” status of many of the documents.  The memo explained,

“Classified information, whether or not already posted on public websites or disclosed to the media remains classified, and must be treated as such by federal employees and contractors, until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. Government authority.”

Employees were also warned that the standard as explained applied at the employee’s home too.

According to the media reports, the State Department warning was preceded by a similar warning to at least two universities.  A State Department employee warned school officials via email that students interested in a diplomatic career should not access the documents.  The students were warned that “engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.”

The same State Department employee also advised against discussing the documents on social network sites like Facebook or Twitter, the e-mail said.   The Boston University School of Law’s career services office issued a similar warning.   It said the security clearances needed for many government jobs could be jeopardized by the unauthorized accessing of classified documents.
The State Department memo concluded with the rather Orwellian suggestion that

“Federal employees and contractors who believe they may have inadvertently accessed or downloaded classified or sensitive information on computers that access the web via non-classified government systems, or without prior authorization, should contact their information security offices for assistance.”

The complete text of the memo read as follows:

MODEL AGENCY NOTICE TO EMPLOYEES AND CONTRACTORS CONCERNING SAFEGUARDING OF CLASSIFIED INFORMATION AND USE OF GOVERNMENT INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY SYSTEMS

The recent disclosure of U.S. Government documents by WikiLeaks has resulted in damage to our national security. Each federal employee and contractor is obligated to protect classified information pursuant to all applicable laws, and to use government information technology systems in accordance with agency procedures so that the integrity of such systems is not compromised.

Unauthorized disclosures of classified documents (whether in print, on a blog, or on websites) do not alter the documents’ classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents. To the contrary, classified information, whether or not already posted on public websites or disclosed to the media, remains classified, and must be treated as such by federal employees and contractors, until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. Government authority.

Federal employees and contractors therefore are reminded of the following obligations with respect to the treatment of classified information and the use of non-classified government information technology systems:

Except as authorized by their agencies and pursuant to agency procedures, federal employees or contractors shall not, while using computers or other devices (such as Blackberries or Smart Phones) that access the web on non-classified government systems, access documents that are marked classified (including classified documents publicly available on the WikiLeaks and other websites), as doing so risks that material still classified will be placed onto non-classified systems. This requirement applies to access that occurs either through agency or contractor computers, or through employees’ or contractors’ personally owned computers that access non-classified government systems. This requirement does not restrict employee or contractor access to non-classified, publicly available news reports (and other non-classified material) that may in turn discuss classified material, as distinguished from access to underlying documents that themselves are marked classified (including if the underlying classified documents are available on public websites or otherwise in the public domain).

Federal employees or contractors shall not access classified material unless a favorable determination of the person’s eligibility for access has been made by an agency head or the agency head’s designee, the person has signed and approved non-disclosure agreement, the person has a need to know the information, and the person has received contemporaneous training on the proper safeguarding of classified information and on the criminal, civil, and administrative sanctions that may be imposed on an individual who fails to protect classified information from unauthorized disclosure.

Classified information shall not be removed from official premises or disclosed without proper authorization.

Federal employees and contractors who believe they may have inadvertently accessed or downloaded classified or sensitive information on computers that access the web via non-classified government systems, or without prior authorization, should contact their information security offices for assistance.

Thank you for your cooperation, and for your vigilance to these responsibilities.

Since closing the gateways to the leaked documents has proved impossible, some feel these warnings were intended for a wider audience (i.e. the American public) in an effort to intimidate and scare civilians into not reading the leaked documents.

Sources: Fox News, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor

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