A memo sent out to Defense Department security contractors by Undersecretary of Defense security director Timothy A. Davis shows that access to The Guardian news website has been blocked to protect against disclosures from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden containing classified information on secret surveillance programs.
The decision to block was motivated by the need to protect the “integrity of unclassified government information systems.”
The memo sent out on June 7, 2013, reads:
Classified information, whether or not already posted on public websites, disclosed to the media, or otherwise in the public domain remains classified and must be treated as such until it is declassified by an appropriate US government authority. It is the responsibility of every DoD employee and contractor to protect classified information and to follow established procedures for accessing classified information only through authorized means. Leadership must establish a vigilant command climate that underscores the critical importance of safeguarding classified material against compromise.
Accordingly, we request all DoD components send prompt notification to your employees and contractors reminding them of these obligations. Procedures for responding to classified information found in the public domain are attached…
An advisory containing the procedures indicates that “DoD employees and contractors” are not to “access or download documents that are known or suspected to contain classified information.”
It instructs “DoD employees or contractors who inadvertently discover potentially classified information in the public domain” to “report its existence immediately to their Security Manager.”
“The offending material,” is to be, “deleted by holding down the SHIFT key while pressing the DELETE key for Windows-based systems and clearing of all the internet browser cache.”
Those who “seek out classified information in the public domain, acknowledge its accuracy or existence or proliferate the information in any way will be subject to sanctions,” the advisory states. The procedures are also only to be used when classified information is “inadvertently” identified.
The “acknowledging” accuracy part of this document would actually make it possible to punish any employees or contractors who talk with a reporter and confirm that the information published is, in fact, from any of these programs being revealed in documents provided to The Guardian.
The Monterey Herald further reports that US Army NETCOM spokesman Gordon Van Vleet admitted that “press coverage and online content about the NSA leaks” is being “filtered.” This is part of “network hygiene” measures, which are intended to “mitigate unauthorized disclosures of classified information onto DoD unclassified networks.”
Though it somewhat conflicts with the memo signed by Davis, NETCOM spokesman Gordon Van Vleet admitted the Army is “filtering some access to press coverage and online content about the NSA leaks.” Van Vleet said the block is limited to classified computers and was part of “preventative ‘network hygiene’ measures to mitigate unauthorized disclosures of classified information onto DoD unclassified networks.”
This is very similar to what the Defense Department did to block access to media coverage of the information that was disclosed by Pfc. Bradley Manning and published by WikiLeaks—the “Collateral Murder” video, Afghan and Iraq War Logs, the US State Embassy cables, the “Gitmo Files,” etc.
Gawker reported on December 3, 2010, as the US diplomatic cables began to be published and covered by news outlets:
U.S. soldiers in Iraq who try to read about the Wikileaks disclosures—or read coverage of them in mainstream news sites—on unclassified networks get a page warning them that they’re about to break the law.
“The Army’s unclassified, NIPRNET network in Iraq has blocked every major news website because of the Wikileaks issue,” a source told Gawker. He said FoxNews.com, CNN.com, MSNBC.com, the Huffington Post, and a variety of other sites were “blocked on the Army’s unclassified network.”
But, a “spokesperson for U.S. forces in Iraq disputed that claim, saying that the web sites aren’t actually blocked—it’s just that attempts to access them on the unclassified network brings up a warning page saying that you’re about to break the law.”
[U.S. forces in Iraq have] not blocked any news websites from being read. Because of the Wikileaks release of secret documents and their easy availability on the web, USF-I has posted a warning page NIPRNet computers go to first. This page simply warns the user that the website they are about to view may contain classified documents and that such documents should not be viewed, downloaded, or distributed on NIPR computers. There is a button at the bottom of this warning page that then allows the user to go to the website.
Soldiers could read the coverage, but they would understand that they might face penalty or punishment.
What needs to be understood is that this isn’t just about censorship or keeping soldiers in the dark so they do not know what the press is writing about the government they have signed up to serve. It is about custody and control of the information.
Leaked information that is not declassified without proper authorization is still information the US government thinks is property of agencies and institutions in government. Even if the public knows all about the information, that does not mean the government will declassify it. They will still maintain control.
Blocking access is part of that control. It is also a part of the trial against Manning.
Prosecutors will not let the public hear testimony from witnesses related to specifics in the documents Manning confessed to releasing. That is because the material is still classified, even though one can go read it on the internet at any moment.
It may be absurd, but that does not matter to the government. They intend to declassify the material twenty to thirty years down the road. (And the culture encourages over-classification with soldiers reflexively stamping material top secret or secret for declassification after a long period of time.)
Finally, Manning is a victim of this drive to maintain control in the face of a press that exercised its freedom to publish the documents and write about them. They have charged him with “aiding the enemy” to directly criminalize the fact that he was a source that led to the widespread dissemination of information on secret government activities.
If Snowden ever faces a trial in the United States, he will be made to pay too. Keep in mind that Manning was charged once in July 2010 and then was hit with additional charges in March 2011. A similar development could happen with Snowden being hit with additional charges if the US ever successfully extradites him to the United States.