Purdue University Completely Freaks Out Because Bart Gellman's Speech Shows Classified Snowden Docs Already Seen By Millions
from the academia! dept
When Ed Snowden first gave his cache of documents to reporters, there were two sets handed out. Most famously, one set went to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewan MacAskill, who went to Hong Kong on behalf of the Guardian. And the other set went to Bart Gellman, who wrote up reports on them (technically as a freelancer) for the Washington Post. Yesterday, Gellman wrote about a crazy story in which Purdue University absolutely freaked out, after it realized that Gellman gave a keynote speech — for an event organized by the University President, and which Gellman had been specifically asked to give — that showed some of the previously released Snowden documents during his presentation. Despite promising Gellman that the talk had been recorded and a link and a copy of the video would be sent to him, instead, Purdue ended up deleting the whole thing and basically stopped responding to him.
The reason? Apparently Purdue has a deal with the US government, in order to perform classified research on behalf of the government. To do this, the university had to get “facility security clearance.” And, in order to keep that status, it has to abide by certain rules on “classified information spillage.” Apparently, some at Purdue decided to overreact entirely, which Gellman discovered as soon as the Q&A section opened up:
If I had the spider sense that we journalists like to claim, I might have seen trouble coming. One of the first questions in the Q & A that followed my talk was:
“In the presentation you just gave, you were showing documents that were TS/SCI [top secret, sensitive compartmented information] and things like that. Since documents started to become published, has the NSA issued a declass order for that?”
I took the opportunity to explain the government?s dilemmas when classified information becomes available to anyone with an internet connection. I replied:
“These documents, by and large, are still classified. And in many cases, if you work for the government and you have clearance, you?re not allowed to go look at them?”
“Now, it?s perfectly rational for them to say, we?re not going to declassify everything that gets leaked because otherwise we?re letting someone else decide what?s classified and what?s not. But it gets them wound up in pretty bad knots.”
By way of example, I mentioned that the NSA, CIA, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence ?have steadfastly refused to give me a secure channel to communicate with them? about the Snowden leaks. Bound by rules against mingling classified and unclassified communications networks, they will not accept, for example, encrypted emails from me that discuss Top Secret material. In service of secrecy rules, they resort to elliptical conversation on open telephone lines.
My remarks did not answer the question precisely enough for one post-doctoral research engineer. He stood, politely, to nail the matter down.
?Were the documents you showed tonight unclassified?? he asked.
?No. They?re classified still,? I replied.
?Thank you,? he said, and resumed his seat.
And all of that apparently set off a chain reaction where some people freaked out and alerted Purdue’s “Information Assurance Officer” who then told Purdue’s representative at the Defense Security Service, leading to an escalation that resulted in a DELETE EVERYTHING FREAKOUT. Of course, once Gellman published his blog post making Purdue look silly, it quickly backtracked:
In an overreaction while attempting to comply with regulations, the video was ordered to be deleted instead of just blocking the piece of information in question. Just FYI: The conference organizers were not even aware that any of this had happened until well after the video was already gone.
I?m told we are attempting to recover the video, but I have not heard yet whether that is going to be possible. When I find out, I will let you know and we will, of course, provide a copy to you.
We’ve talked about this a few times before, and the head in sand approach the government takes to pretending that publicly available leaked classified information is still secret. Government employees are regularly told they cannot look at such documents even if those documents are splashed across the pages of the Washington Post, the NY Times or other news sources. The rationale for this is that it takes away at least some incentive for people to force declassification by leaking documents. But it doesn’t really. It just makes everyone look foolish. In the business world, most standard non-disclosure agreements include a clause that says that if the material becomes public through other means, the agreement no longer applies. It’s ridiculous that the same is not true for classified information as well.
Perhaps even more ridiculous is how the University responded to Gellman’s questions prior to him posting the blog post about Purdue’s overreaction:
I left word for Mitch Daniels, the former Indiana governor who became Purdue?s president two years ago. Daniels had introduced my talk and asked me to speak again for guests at a dinner he held that night. He was a delightful, well-read and open-minded host, but he has not returned my messages either. I sent one last note, detailing my main points here, to Purdue?s assistant vice president for strategic communications. I?ll update with her reply if she sends one.
The irony is that the Dawn or Doom colloquium was Daniels?s own personal project. Two of the organizers told me he is fascinated by the contradictory responses ? from celebration to alarm ? that tend to accompany big technological advances. He proposed to convene Purdue faculty members and leading national experts to explore the risks and promises of artificial intelligence, robotics, and Big Data surveillance, among other developments.
In his own view, Dawn or Doom is not a hard question. Daniels and I chatted about that theme as we stood in the wings off stage, shortly before my talk.
?The answer always turns out to be, it?s dawn,? he said.
Except when his own university overreacts. Gellman also notes that this suggests that this whole situation speaks ill of Purdue as an institute of higher learning:
Purdue has compromised its own independence and that of its students and faculty. It set an unhappy precedent, even if the people responsible thought they were merely following routine procedures.
Think of it as a classic case of mission creep. Purdue invited the secret-keepers of the Defense Security Service into one cloistered corner of campus (?a small but significant fraction? of research in certain fields, as the university counsel put it). The trustees accepted what may have seemed a limited burden, confined to the precincts of classified research.
Now the security apparatus claims jurisdiction over the campus (?facility?) at large. The university finds itself ?sanitizing? a conference that has nothing to do with any government contract. Where does it stop? Suppose a professor wants to teach a network security course, or a student wants to write a foreign policy paper, that draws on the rich public record made available by Snowden and Chelsea Manning? Those cases will be hard to distinguish from mine.
The backtracking now that the university is embarrassed is better than ignoring the issue, but it’s ridiculous that it got this far in the first place.