Sang Tan/AP
Some US government warning have suggested that a federal employee would be breaking the law by reading one of these newspapers reporting on classified State Department documents published on the WikiLeaks website. The photo was taken Nov. 29 in London.

US to federal workers: If you read WikiLeaks, you're breaking the law

In the view of the US government, many of the WikiLeaks documents are still classified, and reading classified documents without clearance is illegal. Critics say the warning is censorship.

Imagine you’re a soldier in Iraq seeking to keep up with world events, so you forgo the TMZs of the cyberworld in favor of real news on a site like CBS or CNN or Fox. You click on a story about the WikiLeaks release of thousands of State Department cables – and up pops a government-placed box informing you that if you proceed to the story you will be breaking the law.

Huh? Welcome to one of the more bewildering tangents of the WikiLeaks information dump: the clash between the principle of a censorship-free Internet and the government’s need to protect certain information – and the sources of that information.

The federal government reasons that, published or not, the cables released by WikiLeaks are still classified documents. So it is warning employees from the Library of Congress to its far-flung foot soldiers not to access WikiLeaks and the mirror sites it and other information activists are feverishly setting up.

In some cases the warnings have extended even to accessing media reports about the disclosures. Accessing classified information without clearance is tantamount to breaking the law, the warnings go, and could damage one’s government career or even end it.

Federal agencies are not blocking WikiLeaks and mirror websites, but some government employee advocates deem the warnings a form of censorship.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has made censorship-free Internet access a top priority of her dealings with authoritarian countries like China, some rights activists note. But now that the shoe is on the other foot, they add, the US government is violating its own policies.

The State Department was drawn into the censorship controversy after at least two universities warned students that they could be jeopardizing future diplomatic careers by accessing WikiLeaks documents still considered classified by the government.

A State Department employee and alumnus of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs warned school officials that students interested in a diplomatic career should not access the documents, according to an e-mail sent to students last week. The State Department employee said that accessing or disseminating the documents “would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information,” according to the e-mail.

The State Department employee also advised against discussing the documents on social network sites like Facebook or Twitter, the e-mail said.

The Boston University School of Law's career services office issued a similar warning. It said the security clearances needed for many government jobs could be jeopardized by the unauthorized accessing of classified documents.

The State Department is stressing that any such warnings are not the official policy of the department. Spokesman P.J. Crowley says the action “sounds like an over-zealous employee.” Mr. Crowley told The Huffington Post that State Department employees were instructed "not to access the WikiLeaks site and download posted documents using an unclassified network, since these documents are still classified.”

But he said “no advice” had been given to anyone beyond the department.

The Office of Budget and Management sent out a memo Friday instructing federal agencies to review clearance levels, ensure that employees not have more access than necessary, and restrict the use of equipment such as flash drives.

The lengthy memo concludes with the rather Orwellian suggestion that “federal employees and contractors who believe they may have inadvertently accessed or downloaded classified or sensitive information on computers that access the web via non-classified government systems, or without prior authorization, should contact their information security offices for assistance.”

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