Federal Ban of WikiLeaks Website Embroils Librarians

Posted Friday, December 10, 2010 - 09:18
Wikileaks logo

Reaction continues to pour in from all over the world since the Library of Congress confirmed December 3 that it was blocking access from all LC computers to the WikiLeaks website in order to prevent unauthorized downloading of classified records as ordered by the Office of Management and Budget. LC’s action raised red flags in libraries all over the country as librarians struggled with the implications of the nation’s library barring staff and visitors’ access to the classified diplomatic cables WikiLeaks released in November.

“The news media are reporting today, accurately, that the Library of Congress is blocking access to the WikiLeaks site across its computer systems, including those for use by patrons in the reading rooms,” wrote LC spokesperson Matt Raymond. “The Library decided to block WikiLeaks because applicable law obligates federal agencies to protect classified information.”

Pamela C. Sieving, biomedical librarian at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, shared with the ALA Council discussion list a directive issued to NIH employees:

Except as authorized by their agencies and pursuant to agency procedures, federal employees or contractors shall not, while using computers or other devices (such as Blackberries or Smart Phones) that access the web on non-classified government systems, access documents that are marked classified (including classified documents publicly available on the WikiLeaks and other websites), as doing so risks that material still classified will be placed onto non-classified systems.
This requirement applies to access that occurs either through agency or contractor computers, or through employees’ or contractors’ personally owned computers that access non-classified government systems. This requirement does not restrict employee or contractor access to non-classified, publicly available news reports (and other non-classified material) that may in turn discuss classified material, as distinguished from access to underlying documents that themselves are marked classified (including if the underlying classified documents are available on public websites or otherwise in the public domain).

Within a week, Raymond’s posting had garnered 152 responses, many from commenters self-identifying as librarians. Some quoted the First Amendment or ALA’s Library Bill of Rights in condemning the website ban. “What next? Will LC pull the Pentagon Papers from the stacks and burn them with all the other banned books in a bonfire in the main reading room?” John Galt chided. Others lauded LC for its principled move. “While the cat is certainly out of the bag, the position of the LOC in blocking access in this case is completely reasonable,” Kevin Fitzpatrick declared, adding, “Anyone wishing to find the released information will have no real difficulty in doing so. That does not however mean that we the taxpayer need make it easier by providing that access.”

Three days after Raymond posted LC’s explanation, Secrecy News Editor Steven Aftergood observed, “Since the Congressional Research Service is a component of the Library, this means that CRS researchers will be unable to access or to cite the leaked materials in their research reports to Congress. Several current and former CRS analysts expressed perplexity and dismay about the move, and they said it could undermine the institution’s research activities.”

“It’s a difficult situation,” one unidentified CRS analyst told Aftergood. “The information was released illegally, and it’s not right for government agencies to be aiding and abetting this illegal dissemination. But the information is out there. Presumably, any Library of Congress researcher who wants to access the information that WikiLeaks illegally released will simply use their home computers or cell phones to do so. Will they be able to refer directly to the information in their writings for the Library? Apparently not, unless a secondary source, like a newspaper, happens to have already cited it.”

Indeed, according to a December 7 Associated Press report, “WikiLeaks turned over all of the [251,287] classified U.S. State Department cables it obtained to Le Monde, El Pais in Spain, The Guardian in Britain, and Der Spiegel in Germany. The Guardian shared the material with the New York Times, and the five news organizations have been working together to plan the timing of their reports.” At first, WikiLeaks is believed to have followed their lead in disclosing the same 1,095 documents that the five newspapers had been referencing, according to a WikiLeaks FAQ published at the Future of the Internet website. But on December 6, WikiLeaks is reported to have unilaterally released a cable that contained a Department of Homeland Security list of overseas facilities deemed crucial to U.S. national security as of February 2009.

Addressing concerns raised by the governing Council of the American Library Association, ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels has issued a statement explaining that the decision to block online access to WikiLeaks will be added to the Midwinter Meeting discussion agenda in San Diego January 7–11.