By ERIC SCHMITT
Published: December 14, 2010
WASHINGTON — The Air Force is barring its personnel from using work computers to view the Web sites of The New York Times and more than 25 other news organizations and blogs that have posted secret cables obtained by WikiLeaks, Air Force officials said Tuesday.
When Air Force personnel on the service’s computer network try to view the Web sites of The Times, the British newspaper The Guardian, the German magazine Der Spiegel, the Spanish newspaper El País and the French newspaper Le Monde, as well as other sites that posted full confidential cables, the screen says ‘Access Denied: Internet usage is logged and monitored,’ according to an Air Force official whose access was blocked and who shared the screen warning with The Times. Violators are warned that they face punishment if they try to view classified material from unauthorized Web sites.
Some Air Force officials acknowledged that the steps taken might be in vain since many military personnel could gain access to the documents from home computers, despite admonishments from superiors not to read the cables without proper clearances.
Cyber network specialists within the Air Force Space Command last week followed longstanding procedures to keep classified information off unclassified computer systems. ‘News media Web sites will be blocked if they post classified documents from the WikiLeaks Web site,’ said Lt. Col. Brenda Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Space Command, a unit of which oversees Air Force cyber systems. ‘This is similar to how we’d block any other Web site that posted classified information.’
Colonel Campbell said that only sites posting full classified documents, not just excerpts, would be blocked. ‘When classified documents appear on a Web site, a judgment will be made whether it will be blocked,’ she said. ‘It’s an issue we’re working through right now.’
Spokesmen for the Army, Navy and Marines said they were not blocking the Web sites of news organizations, largely because guidance has already been issued by the Obama administration and the Defense Department directing hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors not to read the secret cables and other classified documents published by WikiLeaks unless the workers have the required security clearance or authorization.
‘Classified information, whether or not already posted on public websites or disclosed to the media, remains classified, and must be treated as such by federal employees and contractors, until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. Government authority,’ said a notice sent on Dec. 3 by the Office of Management and Budget, which is part of the White House, to agency and department heads.
A Defense Department spokesman, Col. David Lapan, in an e-mail on Tuesday night sought to distance the department from the Air Force’s action to block access to the media Web sites: ‘This is not DoD-directed or DoD-wide.’
The Air Force’s action was first reported on The Wall Street Journal’s Web site late Tuesday and underscores the wide-ranging impact of the recent release of secret State Department documents by WikiLeaks, and five news organizations, including The Times. It also illustrates the contortions the military and other government agencies appear to be going through to limit the spread of classified information that has become widely available in the public domain.
‘It is unfortunate that the U.S. Air Force has chosen not to allow its personnel access to information that virtually everyone else in the world can access,’ said a spokeswoman for The Times, Danielle Rhoades Ha. A senior administration official said Tuesday that the administration’s policy contained some leeway, for instance, to allow certain employees to download information in order for them to be able to verify that classified information was leaking into the public domain, and to assess damage to national security and potential danger to sources.
Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, a secrecy specialist, said dozens of agencies, as well as branches of the military and government contractors, had issued their own policy instructions based on the Office of Management and Budget memo.
‘It’s a self-defeating policy that will leave government employees less informed than they ought to be,’ Mr. Aftergood said.