Screen shot of blocked US National Archives search

Searches for “WikiLeaks” in the public search engine for the US National Archives have been blocked, according to a posting at Cryptome.org. Any search containing the word “WikiLeaks (like “Congress” and “WikiLeaks”) turns up an error message.

WikiLeaks reacted on Twitter, “The US National Archives has literally turned into Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.” In another more vivid message, “The US state is literally eating its own brain by censoring its own collective memories about WikiLeaks.” And, in another message, “The US National Archives censoring searches for its records containing the word ‘WikiLeaks’ is absolutely absurd.”

It is unknown when the Archives began blocking searches, but the United States government did adopt a generally accepted and understood policy of censorship back in December 2010 when the US State Embassy cables were being released.

The Library of Congress (LOC) blocked access to WikiLeaks on its computer system, including computers used by patrons in reading rooms. As a result of a recommendation by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), they claimed to be following “applicable law” that required them to “protect classified information.” They went along with the absurd notion the US government was propagating—that “unauthorized disclosures of classified documents do not alter the documents’ classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents.”

This act by the government led the American Library Association (ALA) to write an open letter to US government officials, where the association of librarians condemned “government actors,” who had “made official and unofficial statements casting doubt on the right of government employees and others to download, read, or even discuss documents published by Wikileaks or news reporting based on those documents.” The ALA suggested this policy violated the First Amendment rights of Internet users to receive information.

Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News reported this would complicate the work of employees of the Congressional Research Service, a “component” of the LOC. One CRS analyst said, “The information was released illegally, and it’s not right for government agencies to be aiding and abetting this illegal dissemination.  But the information is out there.  Presumably, any Library of Congress researcher who wants to access the information that Wikileaks illegally released will simply use their home computers or cellphones to do so.” [*Note: WikiLeaks did not release or publish documents illegally, as they had a right as a media organization to publish.]

A former CRS employee reacted, “I don’t know that you can make a credible argument that CRS reports are the gold standard of analytical reporting, as is often claimed, when its analysts are denied access to information that historians and public policy types call a treasure trove of data.” Like Aftergood wrote, “If CRS is ‘Congress’s brain,’ then the new access restrictions could mean a partial lobotomy.”

On December 15, 2010, The Nation’s Greg Mitchell reported on his live blog:

Just received email tip from man purporting to be Verizon employee at a headquarters and offering to send screen shots.  Here’s an excerpt:  “Last week, I was browsing several news sites at work when I noticed something strange: any time I tried to read a story about Wikileaks, the site was blocked. Typically, our intranet blocks the usual ‘time-waster’  sites…. In these cases, the entire domain is blocked and any content offered up by that domain on a separate site (such as videos embedded from YouTube) would be blocked on the other site as well.”In this case, though, only specific URLs were being blocked, while the rest of the site was fine. In the screenshots, you can see I can access, for example, the Guardian front page, as well as another, non-Wikileaks related article. But if I tried to go to any of the cable articles, I received the block message…. It appears there’s a blanket URL block for any URL containing the word “wikileaks” no matter what the context. Also, I’ve confirmed with a friend of mine who works for AT&T that they’re doing similar blocking.   I have screen shots available.”  He also claims that a friend at AT & T says same thing going on there.

Censorship had expanded to quasi-government agencies—agencies that Marcy Wheeler pointed out had engaged in domestic and international spying for the US government.

Professor Yochai Benkler attempted to make sense of this government policy in a paper titled, “A Free and Irresponsible Press: WikiLeaks and the Battle Over the Soul of the Networked Fourth Estate.”

…Plainly, these blocks could not possibly do anything to limit further leakage of already-leaked documents. It also seems highly implausible that these blocks represented an effort to prevent federal employees from seeing the paucity of the threat—and the exaggerated nature of the response—for themselves. Much more likely is that these were uncoordinated acts intended as public performances of allegiance in the face of threat to the national pride. More than most other acts we have seen, these public announcements suggest a futile panic response…

The “futile panic response” included a State Department official reportedly warning students at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) that students applying for jobs in the federal government could see their prospects jeopardized if they were found to be reading and sharing documents from WikiLeaks or talking about WikiLeaks on Facebook or Twitter. (The university later reversed its position.)

In his paper, Benkler characterized this as “a serious exercise of power over speech throughthe power of the government to hire or refuse to hire. As such, it is a direct and effective constraint on reading publicly available truthful information with clear political import. And, as with the case of the companies, here university career services offices provided accreditation and dissemination services to the initial move by the government, so that the chilling effect was amplified through the organizational power of recruitment and hiring in the country’s institutes of higher education.”

As much as it may have been panic, the State Department enforced its policy of mandatory ignorance by forcing State Department employee Peter van Buren out of the agency. He put up a blog post that included a WikiLeaks link—not a document, not a leak but a link to a WikiLeaks cable. This became the opportunity the department had been waiting for, as they had been bothered by a book he published on the department’s appallingly dysfunctional Iraq reconstruction efforts. The State Department claimed he had to clear anything he wanted to post on his personal blog with a prepublication review board before he could publish anything—a clear restriction of Van Buren’s free speech rights.

Presumably, this disposition toward WikiLeaks documents continues to exist. Employees fear coming in contact with anything WikiLeaks because it could be the excuse their boss uses to retaliate and fire them or remove them from a job. Military officers tasked with briefing the press on the court martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning have not seen a WikiLeaks, they say, as if it is some virus of which they do not wish to come into contact.

Whatever the government thinks it is gaining, this policy does have clear effects. It makes a mockery of any claims that the government is open or transparent. And, those like Van Buren, who experience harassment from government actors because they do not submit to policies of enforced ignorance, are pushed over the edge and radicalized.

On Van Buren’s last day at the office, he showed up wearing a “Free Bradley Manning” t-shirt, “as a nice way of reminding the State Department of its obligation to support free speech.” That is the best example of what this cracked yet totalitarian policy can have on members of government agencies and institutions, who come to understand the extent to which the US government seeks to keep employees in a bubble.