WikiLeaks scandal leads to fear-mongering over information security

“The recent response of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to the WikiLeaks document dump gives us a peek at the sometimes surreal standards for dealing with classified information and at the fear-mongering in which some government officials are engaging,” says Kathleen Clark, JD, professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law.

Clark teaches and writes about government ethics, national security law, legal ethics and whistleblowing.

According to CNN, on Dec. 3, the OMB instructed executive branch agencies to notify all government employees and contractors that they should not view any documents that are marked as classified using their work computers that access the web via non-classified government systems.

The OMB distinguished “documents that are marked classified” from “news reports … that … discuss the classified material.”

Apparently, employees are permitted to use non-classified government systems to access news reports that include classified information but must not use those systems to access the classified documents themselves.

“This distinction might seem silly to an outsider, but the government imposes special security measures for its computers that store classified documents and takes pains to ensure that its computers without these security measures do not have any classified documents,” Clark says. “This system of segregating classified documents is complicated and costly. But so far, so good.”

Clark notes that the OMB also suggested, somewhat ambiguously, that federal employees and contractors without the proper clearances and the “need to know” the information should not access WikiLeaks’ classified information.

Additionally, at least one agency has gone further, asserting that government employees ― and prospective employees ― should not access WikiLeaks classified documents even from their home computers. According to Democracy Now, the State Department instructed employees of the U.S. Agency for International Development as follows: “Accessing the WikiLeaks website from any computer may be viewed as a violation of the SF-312 agreement (a non-disclosure agreement).”

Clark says that it is not at all clear how accessing the WikiLeaks documents on a personal home computer would constitute a violation of an agreement not to disclose classified information.

“This does not appear to be a one-off mistake by an overzealous State Department official since at least one government contractor similarly warned its employees against accessing WikiLeaks both on company-issued and on personal equipment,” she says.

“Indeed, Career Services offices at Columbia University and Boston University also reportedly warned students and alumni about the risks of posting links to the documents and/or commenting on them through social media.

“Are these just overreactions by people who are not familiar with the government’s information security standards?” Clark asks. “Or do these warnings reflect a concerted effort to prevent Americans from accessing and discussing the WikiLeaks documents that are now available on the web?

“I sincerely hope that someone in government will provide some clarification ― and some sanity ― on this issue soon.”

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