Pentagon to Troops: Taliban Can Read WikiLeaks, You Can’t

By Noah Shachtman



Any citizen, any foreign spy, any member of the Taliban, and any terrorist can go to the WikiLeaks website, and download detailed information about how the U.S. military waged war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2009.
Members of that same military, however, are now banned from looking at
those internal military documents. “Doing so would introduce potentially classified information on uncl...,” according to one directive issued by the armed forces.

That cry you hear? It’s common sense, writhing in pain.

There was a time, just a few months ago, when the Pentagon appeared to be growing comfortable with the emerging digital media landscape. Troops were free to blog and tweet, as long as they used their heads and didn’t disclose secrets. Thumb drives and DVDs could be employed,
as long as they didn’t carry viruses or classified information. But the
WikiLeaks disclosures — tens of thousands of classified documents —
seem to have reversed that trajectory.

Now, the Marine Corps is telling troops and civilian employees in a memo:

[W]illingly accessing the WIKILEAKS website for the purpose of viewing the posted classified material [constitutes] the
unauthorized processing, disclosure, viewing, and downloading of
classified information onto an UNAUTHORIZED computer system not approved
to store classified information. Meaning they have WILLINGLY committed
a SECURITY VIOLATION.

The other branches of the armed services have put out similar notices. The memos were initially reported in the Washington Times. But the story has been removed from the paper’s website.

Sumit Agarwal, the former Google manager now serving as the Defense Department’s
social media czar, explained the Pentagon’s logic in an e-mail to Danger
Room.

“I think of it as being analogous to MP3s or a copyrighted novel online — widespread publication doesn’t strip away laws governing use
of those,” he writes. ”If Avatar were suddenly available
online, would be legal to download it? As a practical matter, many
people would download it, but also as a practical matter, James Cameron
would probably go after people who were found to be nodes who
facilitated distribution. It would still be illegal for people to make Avatar available even if it were posted on a torrent site or the equivalent.”

“With minor changes to what is legal/illegal re: classified material vs a copyrighted movie, doesn’t the analogy hold?” Argawal asks. “One
person making it available doesn’t change the laws re: classified
material. Our position is simply that servicemembers ought not to use
government computers to do something which is still completely illegal
(traffic in classified material).”

But it’s an imperfect analogy, at best. Cameron might plausibly argue that each pirated version of Avatar reduces his customer base for legitimate versions of the movie (even if
the opposite has proven to be true). Banning troops from reading the
WikiLeaks war logs won’t in any way impact how potentially nefarious
consumers of that information behave. This is the equivalent of Cameron
banning his own staff from watching Avatar — even after it’s been posted
online.

Meanwhile, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell demanded Thursday that WikiLeaks “return all versions of all of these documents to the U.S. government and permanently delete them from its website, computers and records.”

But he quickly added: “I don’t know that we’re very confident they’ll have a change of heart. They’ve shown no indication thus far that they
appreciate the gravity, the seriousness of the situation they have
caused, the lives they have endangered, the operations they have
potentially undermined, the innocent people who have potentially been
put in harm’s way as a result. So I don’t know that we have a high
degree of confidence that this — that this request, this demand, unto
itself, will prevail upon them.”

Every officer in the military — and many of the enlisted men, too — have a basic, “secret,” clearance. That’s hundreds of thousands of
potential sources to WikiLeaks. Seems to me that the only plausible
explanation for the Pentagon’s arm-waving is to remind troops not to
spill secrets. The question is: Does clinging to military regulations at
the expense of basic logic encourage people to respect classification
policy — or only make the secrecy regime seem more absurd?

Update: “Take ‘wikileaks’ out of your headlines,” one Army contractor e-mails Danger Room. The web filter “has been updated to block anything with wikileaks in the URL.”

“So, yeah, common sense out the window,” the contractor adds.

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