Sunday, June 16, 2013

Classified Information in Public Domain

I had an interesting twitversation with Joel Langill earlier this week about a copy of the classified version of PPD-20. Joel had provided a link to the document (clearly marked ‘Top Secret/NOFORN) and I had posted a warning that government employees and contractors should not download a copy of the document. Joel replied that it was supposed to be declassified and publicly available. And I replied that unless it was specifically declassified by the President (and I still haven’t seen anything to indicate that it has) then contractors and government employees could still get in trouble for downloading or discussing this document.

I facetiously call this the Wiki Leaks Doctrine because the Obama Administration made a big thing about government employees and contractors downloading classified documents from the wiki leaks pages. They correctly pointed out that a classified document must (under government rules) continue to be properly protected until it is specifically declassified by the classification authority. Just putting a classified document into the public domain does not remove its classification or the requirement to protect that document against further disclosure.

Thanks to the folks at the Federation of American Scientist we can see a recent DOD memo reiterating this fact. I suspect (but cannot prove for obvious reasons) that this particular memo is specifically addressing the publicly circulating copy of PPD-20 that Joel pointed us at.

The government has a legitimate point here. They can always publicly maintain that the improperly published classified documents are not real to try to continue to protect the information. If government employees and contractors maintain copies of the public version of the document on their government computers (without the appropriate safeguards due to classified material), subsequent leaks from those systems can be used to verify the authenticity of the documents. Additionally, open source discussion of those documents by personnel who are appropriately cleared for access to the classified versions who mistakenly believe that the document has been properly declassified could further compromise the information and potentially expand the scope of the compromised information.

Since I am not a government employee or contractor and my security clearance lapsed many years ago I am free to discuss classified documents that I find in the public domain (I still can’t discuss the ones that I had official access to while in the military unless they have subsequently been declassified). I will obviously exercise some discretion in doing so (I don’t need to unnecessarily piss-off the military, DHS or the White House) but I will always preface such discussion with a warning to government employees and contractors about their responsibility to not read or participate in the discussion.

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