WikiLeaks: Don't peek, don't yell

OMB says a secret is a secret -- even when apparently it's no longer a secret

A secret is a secret, even if it's no longer a secret.

WikiLeaks' latest release of sensitive government information prompted that philosophical stance by the Office of Management and Budget.

The issue involves a massive batch of diplomatic cables from the State Department that went online in early December, much to the consternation of the Obama administration and many leaders of the international community.

One problem is that some cables, which were not written for public consumption, contain frank and unflattering assessments of international partners, which could lead to some awkward moments at the next get-together at the United Nations.

A more serious problem is that many of the documents are considered sensitive or classified. As far as the public is concerned, that’s neither here nor there: The secrets are out.

But OMB officials apparently believe that the niceties must be observed.

"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," OMB’s Dec. 3 memo states.

So, yes, a secret is secret even if it has been made public. So if federal employees look at documents for which they lack clearance — even if they are doing it on their own time and on their own equipment — they are breaking the law.

On the one hand, OMB had to take the stand lest the administration be seen as tacitly endorsing the release of sensitive materials. On the other hand, it probably is a safe bet that the temptation will be too much for many feds, especially those who lack the necessary security clearance and would otherwise be left in the dark.

FCW.com readers were divided on the soundness of OMB’s no-peek policy and the ethics of violating it.

“It seems a bit insane to order anyone to not read something the rest of the world is viewing — whether classified or not,” one person wrote. “Though I can understand the desire to minimize ‘spillage,’ this is definitely a case of attempting to close the gate long after the horse has left the barn.”

“So everyone can see this stuff except for feds and contractors?” M wrote. “The federal government is showing that it responds to one big failure with a desperate decree. I am embarrassed for our national security community, again.”

One pragmatic reader pointed out that viewing the classified documents would make it difficult to pass a polygraph test, which is necessary to get or renew a security clearance at some agencies.

Although the order appears to instruct employees not to view the documents at all, some readers said their agencies are concerned primarily with how classified information is managed on government computers.

That’s how the word came down at the Defense Department, where officials get a little touchy about classified information showing up on its Unclassified but Sensitive IP Router Network.

Another reader provided a little more technical perspective, noting that the files could end up in a system cache, which would then have to be removed and wiped. If enough people were to get curious, that could be a problem for DOD help desks.

However, a more philosophical reader noted that the policy, however sound and well-considered, lacks teeth.

“I doubt there is any way they can enforce a policy prohibiting a DOD civilian or contractor (or perhaps even military members) from viewing classified content posted to the Internet from their home over their commercial ISP.”

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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