The Library of Congress announced this week that it blocked its employees from accessing WikiLeaks. Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, says that blocking government analysts from accessing information that every other American can see is a bad and possibly dangerous idea.
Chocolate City Dreaming
Artist: by Oddisee
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Library of Congress announced this week that it blocked its employees from accessing WikiLeaks. In a statement, the Library’s spokesperson said, quote: “The Library decided to block WikiLeaks because applicable law obligates federal agencies to protect classified information. Unauthorized disclosure of classified documents do not alter the documents’ classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents.” Many federal agencies, including the State Department and the Department of Commerce, have issued similar directives to federal workers but Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, is particularly worried about the Library’s Congressional Research Service, which provides legislators with valuable data and analysis and functions essentially, he says, as Congress’ brain. He warns that if the CRS can't cite the leaked materials in its reports to Congress, there could be dire consequences.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: The primary message is don't read them on government computers or even on remote computers that transit a government network. The upshot is that analysts like those at the Congressional Research Service cannot incorporate any of the WikiLeaks material or do any analysis based on it for Congress. And so there’s this wall that has been erected, such that what the general public has access to Congress’ own analysts are barred from using. For example, one of the current policy issues before Congress is whether and how to prosecute WikiLeaks for possible violations of the Espionage Act. In making such a judgment, one of the things that has to be decided is whether the records that have been leaked are national defense information, which the Espionage Act protects. But the CRS analysts cannot make their own judgment about whether there is national defense information in, say, the State Department cables because they're not permitted to view the State Department cables.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of these cables don't have a very high classification to begin with. Isn't that correct?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: The majority of them, more than 50 percent, are technically unclassified.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And those also fall under this restriction you’re referring to?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: To the extent that access to the WikiLeaks site is blocked, then, yes, even the unclassified releases are inaccessible. All they can do is to look at news reports regarding the release and base their analyses on those. Now, to its credit, even the Congressional Research Service realizes that this is sort of an absurd and untenable situation, and they have asked Congress to provide guidance on how they should proceed. The director of the CRS himself said that many of these leaked records would shed important light, and so it seems self-defeating for access to be blocked.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, WikiLeaks has dominated the last couple of weeks of news cycles because in many ways it’s unique, but it’s also a harbinger of things to come. Do you see in the government’s action a much bigger problem to solve, a problem that extends far beyond WikiLeaks?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Yeah, I mean, I think there is a disappointing lack of agility in terms of being able to respond to these new releases, and also a disappointing lack of common sense. What we're seeing is an adherence to the letter of the law and the regulation at all costs to the point that I had one official complaining that he is not allowed to read the records that his wife and his mother-in-law can freely read online, and it just makes no sense. But that is the conundrum that we've been driven into. I think it’s a failing of government security policy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you acknowledge that the government is facing a problem here, right?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: It is. I mean, there has been a violation of classification rules and security protections. The question is in the face of that new reality, what do you do about it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Excellent question - what’s your answer?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: [LAUGHS] The mission is first. You don't let yourself be tied in knots. Security at best is a means to an end. It should be serving the national interest. When we become servants of security rather than being served by security, then we've got things backwards.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven, thank you very much. I love a handy aphorism.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: [LAUGHS] Thank you.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven Aftergood is the director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy.