The ban is in response to WikiLeaks' decision to published classified material, including US diplomatic cables. It’s not clear when the policy first began but it joins a similar order by the US Department of Defense put in place since the leaking of Iraq and Afghanistan war documents earlier this year.
Analysts suggest the State Department is temporarily falling back on traditional bureaucratic protocols in the face of a crisis that is emblematic of the shift to an online world. As the dust settles, the WikiLeaks upheaval may push to the fore tensions between new “digital diplomacy” efforts that use Twitter and smart-phone apps, and an older culture of classified cables.
“They need to engage with the broader public, which is empowered with web 2.0, but at the same time keep confidentiality, which is a huge tension that organizations like the State Department have to address,” says Jovan Kurbalija, an expert in diplomacy and information technology based in Geneva.
Tech-savvy State Department?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pushed for more integration of Internet advances in US diplomacy. She supported young, tech-savvy officers who were developing huge Twitter followings.
In East Africa, the State Department supported a competition called "Apps 4 Africa" that challenged software developers to come up with a socially beneficial phone application. The winner was "iCow," an application that helps farmers track animal breeding cycles.
“That’s at the heart of what this digital diplomacy is,” says Sam duPont, a policy analyst with NDN, a think-tank in Washington. “Using this incredibly powerful global network to bypass traditional government-to-government, diplomat-to-diplomat relationships and use the technology to reach people you couldn’t reach before.”
The transparency conundrum
But the embrace of modern communications has not necessarily included the underlying philosophy of information openness. Much diplomatic work still depends upon confidential conversations, and the WikiLeaks crisis has, so far, moved the agency toward more information restrictions.
The State Department is undertaking an effort to gain more control over the information flowing in and out of its network. Spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters Tuesday that the State Department has “temporarily severed” the connection between an internal database and another classified network.
“We want to make sure that our documents are adequately protected and that we have the ability to detect if anything like this occurs in the future,” said Mr. Crowley. The agency “has narrowed, for the time being, those who have access to State Department cables across the government.”
Asked about the ban on surfing the WikiLeaks site, another State Department spokesperson said it could not be confirmed at this time.
A matter of principle?
One diplomat says the ban has no impact on the ability to follow what’s going on since the cables can be accessed elsewhere online and read about in news reports. The ban, the diplomat says, is more about standing on principle that the cables should still be treated as classified documents.
“The idea of it being based on principle is strange,” says Mr. duPont. “We don’t keep things classified [just] on principle.”
Digital diplomacy experts appear nonplussed that the State Department went from iCow to a ban on a website with content that comes from the State Department, and seem to doubt the directive came from its technology squad.
A stated purpose for the Defense Department's ban, meanwhile, is to keep information properly organized.
“Department of Defense military, civilian, and contractor personnel have been advised that they should not access the WikiLeaks website to view or download the publicized classified information. Doing so could introduce potentially classified information on unclassified networks,” writes Dave Thomas, spokesman for the National Defense University, in an e-mail.
As a military institution, the Washington-based university has given the same “guidance” to its students, staff, and faculty.
The ban on downloading, printing, and reposting the cables from WikiLeaks could also be motivated by the potential for website downloads to harbor malicious code, known as malware, used for gaining unauthorized access to a computer.
“There’s always a worry. I guess it’s possible that somebody could put malware there. [But] it’s a safe site to surf to,” says Gadi Evron, a cybersecurity expert.
WikiLeaks, meanwhile, has been hit by suspected cyberattacks known as distributed denial of service attacks that clog up a site’s ability to be accessed.