Did Library Of Congress Lie? White House Says No Requirement To Block Wikileaks

from the the-law-is-the-law? dept

On Friday, we wrote about how the Library of Congress, in an act of pure denial, had blocked Wikileaks, saying that it was required by law to block access to the site. As we noted at the time, this seemed silly, since the documents were widely available all over the internet and press reports were covering most of the details anyway. We got a few folks in the comments to respond with statements along the lines of “the law is the law, they have to block it.” Of course, that misses the point. Even if there was such a law, the only way to “block” such information is to shut off the internet entirely, which is pretty pointless. However, a few folks also responded by asking what law, and the answer might be none.

In an article about how different parts of the government have been warning government workers that these documents are still considered classified and to treat them accordingly, the White House officially stated that it is not advising government agencies to block Wikileaks. In other words, it sounds like someone at the Library of Congress is overreacting — interpreting rules about dealing with classified documents to mean that it needs to block access to the website, when that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Either way, the whole thing is pretty silly. It’s about time the government stops using a reality-denying definition of “classified” documents. In the business world, something is no longer considered a trade secret once it’s out there. If the government wants to respond to actual conditions out in the world, it should do the same. If a classified document is leaked like this, it’s downright silly to still consider it classified or confidential. Just admit that it’s now public info and move on.

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Comments on “Did Library Of Congress Lie? White House Says No Requirement To Block Wikileaks”

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26 Comments
Aaron T (profile) says:

If there is a law, then why aren’t they blocking the New York Times too? The political grandstanding about Wikileaks is reaching the point where it seems everyone in D.C. appears to completely lost what little common sense they once had. Frankly, I didn’t need another reason to dislike my senator (Feinstein), but at least she’s consistently wrong so it makes it that much easier to vote against her (again).

Hulser (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If there is a law, then why aren’t they blocking the New York Times too?

I admit I’m not up on all of the details, but one explanation could be that some laws don’t apply universally to all people. If you are a government agency, you have to restrict access of classified documents to authorized personnel. The press and arguably anyone else have no such obligation even though the information in the document is the same. That’s the reason that the people who originally leak information can be held accountable to their parent organization and/or relevant laws, but the people who publish that information “downstream” can’t (or, at least, shouldn’t).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

No, he means why isn’t the Library of Congress blocking the New York Times? If the Library of Congress were really all about blocking classified documents, then it should be blocking basically any organization who is publishing those documents, which includes the New York Times, the Guardian, etc.

Hulser (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

No, he means why isn’t the Library of Congress blocking the New York Times?

I see what you (and the OP) are saying. And it’s a valid point. I suppose the real world answer still gets back to CYA. One would hope that anyone in the LoC would stand up for freedom of information, but it’s still a government agency. I’m guessing the directive came down from someone who just wanted to take some of the heat off. Also, they’re probably making an artificial distinction between “the press” and other organizations.

Hulser (profile) says:

The law is the law

I guess you’d have to count me in the “the law is the law” camp. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a beaurocrat errors on the side of caution. It may be obvious that a particular document has already become public knowledge, but this is still a subjective judgement. If you’re in charge of making secret documents available to the public after they are declassified, what benefit is it to your career to release them before they’ve they’re officially declassified? It’s not your job to make that judgement.

And, frankly speaking, what the whitehouse says has fuckall to do with your promise to keep classifieds documents classified. If you work at the LoC and someone finds out that you were aware that classified documents were accessible but didn’t move to block them, “but but but, the whitehouse said…” isn’t going to mean anything.

For the record, I think periodic leaks like this are good for democracy. I just don’t think that the policy of the LoC is that big a deal. It’s beaurocrats doing what beaurocrats do. It’s not an indication that they, in their heart of hearts, think that they’re preventing access to the information. It’s just CYA.

Hulser (profile) says:

Re: Re: The law is the law

Considering that people have to do research from LOC… It might actually be beneficial.

Just to clarify my post, I’m not saying that the decision of the LoC to block Wikileaks and the justification thereof isn’t ridiculous and asinine. It is. And it’s shameful that an organization who should be about the free disemination of information is blocking Wikileaks. My point is simply that it’s not ridiculous and asinine because the LoC thinks that it will have a material effect on the overall availability of the information (as the TD articles imply), but that it’s ridiculous and asinine because beauracracies inevitably tend towards the ridiculous and asinine.

Ron Rezendes (profile) says:

Re: The law is the law

“It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a beaurocrat errors on the side of caution.”

The side of caution from a beaurocrat – did you REALLY just write that?! I almost spit coffee all over my screen!

“It’s just CYA.”
I have an easier time believing this was the case in the first place despite the fact that even if the LoC blocked WL that its a futile effort at best.

Folks will just go to where the info is available. Has anyone learned anything from the entertainment industry’s ridiculous attempt to keep the gates closed?

Reulberg (profile) says:

Classified Docs are still classified...

I will have to disagree with the idea of ‘once it’s leaked, it’s no longer classified’ is it leak once one unauthorized person knows? 1000?

Second, it would require them to be aware of exactly what had been leaked — other wise some significant extra details could end up ‘out there’

so, a government owned internet access blocking a site that could lead to criminal charges for their employees if they read the wrong document? Seems about they same as my employer not allowing me to surf for porn or hacking…just sayin’

Martin LaBelle (profile) says:

Re: No law just executive order

Very few people make that distinction…Which is terrifying to me. Observe the election time rhetoric “Candidate so and so will raise taxes”. I feel like screaming “The President cannot raise taxes”. Honestly, I think that there are many lazy folks that would just prefer a king.

Chargone (profile) says:

Re: Re: No law just executive order

monarchies also have the advantage of having an easier time of unsticking themselves from the mire of bureaucratic inertia. well, when the monarch actually plays a role in Ruling, rather than just reigning. they’re slightly more prone to going off the rails… and a Lot easier to sort out when they do.

stability an’t a great thing when it means you can’t correct errors, ya know?

ignorant_s says:

Re: Re: Re: No law just executive order

Most monarchs (who weren’t dethroned) have had to abdicate, or relinquish their sovereign power in favor for some other power structure due to rebellion by the people over something or other.

According to Wikipedia “The historical form of absolute monarchy is retained only in Brunei, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland and Vatican City.”

ignorant_s (profile) says:

Law and order

The government is promoting order, because they fear chaos and lack of control. They are setting an example of Assange so people think twice before they release “sensitive” information to the general public. The Library of Congress is simply stepping in line with the government’s plan of (re)action to this crisis of control. I am sure they are fully aware that their “blocking” access, will have little practical effect.

Despite all the fear mongoring, perhaps this shall serve to reinforce principles of free speech in the US, rather than erode them.

On a pratical level, should we expect anything less from our government than to try to regain control and some level of secrecy? If the US to simply “be cool” with the release of sensitive information, well then, EVERYBODY would be doing it.

No. They have to take a stand, and they’ll figure out the constitutional questions later.

Remember, free speech does have limitations, and the US is wise to attempt to enforce such limits, for the sake of order and keeping people’s faith in the government.

But laws are truly only as strong as the people who choose to follow them. Those who enforce the laws are much less by sheer number than those who choose to exist within the system of law and order. What is there to fear? The power shall always lie with the people.

Aaron T (profile) says:

Re: Law and order

Yes free speech does have limits, but the US Supreme Court ruled that leaked gov’t secrets are perfectly legal to publish after the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers. The act of leaking them is NOT legal, but Wikileaks, the NYT, Guardian, etc all have a right to publish them.

So the constitutional question has already been decided, but surprise surprise those in power find such rights inconvenient and hence go after relatively small organizations Wikileaks rather then companies like the New York Times who have posted the exact same cables that Wikileaks did.

ignorant_s says:

Re: Re: Law and order

Oh ye of little faith of the trickiness of our government and the creativeness of lawyers… They will find a way to distinguish this case from the Pentegon Papers case. I can already see how it could be distinguished by its international nature alone.

As long as there is a legally distinguishable issue, well, they’ll have years and years to figure this one out. By then, I’m sure they hope everyone has forgotten.

Assange, who???

Aaron T (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Law and order

I think the answer is far simpler. If they did the same to the New York Times, The Guardian and other “respected” news organizations then they’d have a shit storm on their hands. By targeting only Wikileaks they hope to keep members of the media complacent and avoid them completely revolting against the government’s attempt to stifle free speech.

See, the gov’t needs the media’s help to demonize Wikileaks for doing the exact same things that the media has done. If the government went after the NYT, then it and the rest of the media would start a huge campaign attacking the actions of the government.

On a side note, you do realize the Pentagon Papers were all about the war in Vietnam right? That sounds pretty “international” to me so I’m not sure how’d you’d use that standard as a differentiation.

ignorant_s says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Law and order

Admittedly, not a good distinction, I could have done much better. But I have no doubt there is something that could be distinguished.

I agree that the Gov’t isn’t going to pull the same tricks with a large and “respectable” news organization for doing the same thing. They couldn’t possibly. Those are not radical, fringe organizations like Wikileaks! They are mass media supported by the masses. And yes, they are trying to make an example out of Wikileaks and understandably, avoid a revolt. If you were the government and you had to maintain power and control, wouldn’t you? They couldn’t possibly go after everyone. And even if they eventually lose in court regarding some free speech issue, by that time, the real problem has been solved. Peace and order restored.

Martin LaBelle (profile) says:

Curious Motivation

Lots of folks are arguing whether or not they ought to be able to do this… But I wonder why they did.

Shouldn’t Congress of all people be able to look and see what the rest of the world is exposed to. If there is some dirty little secret, that the whole world knows except for a particular Senator; might that Senator further embarrass our nation out of ignorance?

Just saying that we shouldn’t be denying our Congress any information that might be pertinent to our nations future.

Aaron T (profile) says:

Re: Curious Motivation

They did it for politics. Notice that the New York Times, The Guardian and other media organizations are publishing the exact same cables that Wikileaks is, but they weren’t blocked. If it was really about the content of the cables, then all sources would of been blocked. The fact that only Wikileaks was blocked shows that it’s really about demonizing Wikileaks.

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