A university's troubling warning about WikiLeaks

The White House has warned federal employees not to view the WikiLeaks cables at work. Among those complying is the Library of Congress, which is blocking access to WikiLeaks across its computers systems, "including those for use by patrons in the reading rooms."

The Library of Congress said this about its action: "The Library decided to block Wikileaks because applicable law obligates federal agencies to protect classified information. Unauthorized disclosures of classified documents do not alter the documents' classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents."

The underlying warning to federal workers is clear: You will put your job at risk if you violate the law.

But George Washington University Elliott School's Security Policy Studies sent out a memo this week that extended this warning to its students. Many students in that program seek jobs requiring a security clearance, a university spokeswoman said.

The university said accessing WikiLeaks files could hurt their chances of getting a government job, which is not a small issue here. The university is almost physically adjacent to the State Department. The full memo was published on a local blog , and says in part:

Students who hold or are seeking security clearances potentially risk losing that those privileges (or jobs). Those of you familiar with form SF-86 will recognize a question about unauthorized access to computer systems, and using Wikileaks may fall under that provision. Additionally, questions may arise during background interviews or polygraphs.

The memo concludes:

We do not intend to restrict your academic study or infringe on your rights to access information in the public domain -- we just think that job-seeking students be advised of a potential risk. Please exercise your own best judgment.

GWU may not want "to restrict your academic study," but it may have chilled it. It advises students to avoid using leaked information in their bibliographies and citations and as a workaround it suggest "using the filter" of media reports, meaning that it is ok to cite an AP account of a WikiLeaks cable, just not the cable itself.

The Federal government isn't prosecuting the media because the media hasn't done anything unlawful to acquire the documents, as Brian Palmer in Slate explains. The same argument might apply to students who use WikiLeaks cables as source material.

But the warning raised by the GWU memo may get the attention from anyone seeking a job in Washington with a security clearance attached to it. Many IT jobs, in particular, require clearances. Applicants could be asked the same question that GWU's memo warns about.

The WikiLeaks document release is just the latest bit of evidence of the inability of the security clearance process to identify risky individuals.

But does reading the WikiLeaks cables make someone less trustworthy? The GWU memo doesn't suggest that. It is just offering tactical advice for working around the tripwires in the security clearance system. It says it is not restricting freedom to view the cables, but it has replaced it instead with an element of paranoia.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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