Govt ban on reading Wikileaks cables ‘may not be legal’

US government efforts to prevent staff from acessing information released by Wikileaks may not stand up in law, according to a Washington University in St. Louis law professor.

According to CNN, at the beginning of this month the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) instructed government agencies  to issue orders to their staff about the material released by Wikileaks. They were banned from viewing any documents marked as classified on work computers accessing the web via non-classified government systems.

The OMB made a distinction between “documents that are marked classified” and “news reports… that… discuss the classified material.” Apparently, employees are allowed to use non-classified government systems to access the latter – but not the classified documents themselves.

This, says law professor Kathleen Clark, makes a certain amount of sense. But, she says, at least one agency has gone further, prohibiting government employees ― and even prospective employees ― from accessing Wikileaks classified documents even from their home computers.

According to Democracy Now, the State Department instructed employees of the US Agency for International Development that: “Accessing the Wikileaks website from any computer may be viewed as a violation of the [non-discosure] SF-312 agreement”.

Clark says that it’s not at all clear how accessing the Wikileaks documents on a personal home computer would constitute a violation of an agreement not to disclose classified information.

“This does not appear to be a one-off mistake by an overzealous State Department official, since at least one government contractor similarly warned its employees against accessing Wikileaks both on company-issued and on personal equipment,” she says.

Indeed, she points out, Career Services offices at Columbia University and Boston University have also reportedly warned students and alumni about the risks of posting links to the documents and/or commenting on them through social media.

“Are these just over-reactions by people who are not familiar with the government’s information security standards?” Clark asks. “Or do these warnings reflect a concerted effort to prevent Americans from accessing and discussing the WikiLeaks documents that are now available on the web?”