Thursday, December 16, 2010

The bureaucracy needs some thinking brains and oh dear, these cables are naked as peeled grapes

When the TSA is not touching your junk, it is messing up US diplomatic relations. As if our diplomats do not have enough of a mess to deal with these days. 

Last week, Meera Shankar, India's ambassador to the United States, was pulled aside and frisked at Mississippi's Jackson-Evers International Airport after speaking at a conference at Mississippi State University. According to HuffPo, the sari-clad ambassador was boarding a flight to Baltimore when TSA officials took her to a VIP waiting room to receive a pat-down by a female TSA agent. Jackson's Clarion-Ledger newspaper quoted airport witnesses who said Shankar was singled out for her dress.  Politico reported that India’s Foreign Minister on Thursday protested the Transportation Security Agency’s pat-down of India’s ambassador to the United States as “unacceptable,” and said he would lodge an official protest.

Reports indicate that despite showing her diplomatic credentials and not setting off any alarms, Amb. Shankar was chosen for a pat-down and it was suggested that this was for wearing a sari.

Via Laura Rozen of Politico:

“After a review of this passenger's screening experience, we determined that the TSA officers followed proper procedure,” a spokesman for TSA told POLITICO in a statement Thursday. "Officers must use their professional discretion to determine if a particular item of clothing could hide a threat object."

Oh gawd! Let's stop for a minute here and think this through.

One - how many ambassadors or diplomats have tried to bomb a US plane? Um, zero.

Two - how many Indian ambassadors have tried to bomb a US plane? None.

Three - if TSA cannot or do not trust the blue bordered ID cards issued by the US State Department to diplomats, then whose documents do they trust?

Four - This is the Indian head of state's personal representative to the United States. Just as Ambassador Roemer is President Obama's personal representative to the Indian Government in New Delhi.  Ambassador Roemer has a pretty active travel schedule around India. Would we want him to be frisked every time he boards a plane simply because he wears a western attire over there?

Now, everyone in a muumuu must go through a pat down, even the pope. Sigh. 

See- what we're really wondering is -- given the high attrition rate over at DHS, how many TSA officers are even aware of this July 2007 memo on the screening of accredited diplomats or have any notion on what reciprocity is about.  We understand professional discretion, but that means nada without a thinking brain.

Moving on ...

And because WikiLeaks is still leaking online -- we cannot ignore how it's impacting government employees all over the place.

Remember that news about the State Department barring its employees from reading WikiLeaks from their work computer? There is a good reason for it; it saves the IT guys from fumigating the offending unclassified computers with the ghost of classified past if viewed in said computers.

Then an alumnus working for State reportedly warned his university particulary college students considering careers with the Feds against reviewing classified information posted by the document-sharing Web site as it might jeopardized their career prospects  . So then, career counselors at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs urged students not to post links to the documents or make comments on social media Web sites, including Facebook or Twitter.

That made the news, too.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley subsequently debunked that warning saying it "does not represent a formal policy position." According to WaPo, Crowley said in an email that "This sounds like an overly zealous employee." That the focus is "advising current employees not to download classified documents to an unclassified network." Also this "While we condemn what WikiLeaks has done, we cannot control what is done through private Internet accounts."

Sounds good. Until the next day.

On December 6, Secrecy News reported that the Library of Congress confirmed that it had blocked access from all Library computers to the Wikileaks web site in order to prevent unauthorized downloading of classified records such as those in the large cache of diplomatic cables that Wikileaks began to publish on November 28." 

The Congressional Research Service, a component of the Library was caught in that slick and sticky mess. 

Steve Aftergood of Secrecy News points out that this means "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."Some quotes:
In fact, if CRS is “Congress’s brain,” then the new access restrictions could mean a partial lobotomy.

“I don’t know that you can make a credible argument that CRS reports are the gold standard of analytical reporting, as is often claimed, when its analysts are denied access to information that historians and public policy types call a treasure trove of data,” another former CRS employee said.

On December 8, Secrecy News did a follow-up post: "the Congressional Research Service asked Congress for guidance on whether and how it should make use of the leaked records that are being published by Wikileaks, noting that they could “shed important light” on topics of CRS interest. The CRS director writes: “Our challenge is how to balance the need to provide the best analysis possible to the Congress on current legislative issues against the legal imperative to protect classified national security information. This is especially a problem in light of the massive volume of recently released documents, which may shed important light on research and analysis done by the Service."

Which makes us also wonder, who in Congress are allowed to read these leaked cables, anyway?

In any case, on December 12, it was DHS turn to complain:
“At DHS we are getting regular messages [warning not to access classified records from Wikileaks],” one Department of Homeland Security official told us in an email message. “It has even been suggested that if it is discovered that we have accessed a classified Wikileaks cable on our personal computers, that will be a security violation. So, my grandmother would be allowed to access the cables, but not me. This seems ludicrous.”
“Part of making informed judgments about what a foreign government or leader will do or think about something is based on an understanding and analysis of what information has gone into their own deliberative processes. If foreign government workers know about something in the Wikileaks documents, which clearly originated with the U.S., then they will certainly (and reasonably) assume that their US counterparts will know about it too, including the staffers. If we don’t, they will assume that we simply do not care, are too arrogant, stupid or negligent to find and read the material, or are so unimportant that we’ve been intentionally left out of the information loop. In any such instance, senior staff will be handicapped in their preparation and in their inter-governmental relationships,” the DHS official said.
Leaked email message here.

Read Steve Aftergood's full post here.

What the OMB memo actually says:
"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)."

See, it does not restrict access to news reports, does it? 

So then -- on Day 18 of WikiLeaks --the Air Force made the splash:
The NYT reports that 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 PaĆ­s 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.
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.”

One for the Huh? News yes?

Our USAF personnel should now be prepared to just read each others palms for their newscasts?  Holy molly guacamole!

Now, we are considerably confused. The alleged leaker who is now in jail was an Army private. You'd think that of there is a military branch who might have one good reason to block these media sites, it would be the US Army. But the Air Force? And why do this now, when it has been leaking for almost three weeks? And since the way the drip is going, it looks like this will go on for a while --  does that mean USAF personnel will just have to forgo reading the news for the next weeks? months? years?    

Then WL belatedly hit the fan somewhere in C Street on December 15.  

Via Gawker:
"The memo, which went out to all employees in the State Department's Consular Affairs-Passport division, makes abundantly clear what other stern government instructions about the cables have tended to leave ambiguous: The feds don't just want to keep unclassified networks free of classified material, they want to keep unclassified minds clear too."
(Image from Gawker)

The memo was signed by Barry Conway of CA/PPT/MD/S . Are you shocked that the memo was leaked to Gawker the very same day it was issued?  The Nov 16 memo from Diplomatic Security/SI is also published in Gawker here.

But really -- why stop with the Passport Division? How about folks working in Visas and Overseas Citizens Services both here and abroad? Have they been assigned to work on projects related to "WikiLeaks documents"? No? So why should they be treated differently from passport folks? Oh, the Motorpool, definitely, include the Motorpool, too. Because. Why not? And the Foreign Service Institute, of course. Diplomats in language training obviously have lots of personal time when they're not drilling tenses.    

I could imagine the State Department spokesman, PJ Crowley shaking his head saying,  “This is not DoS-directed or DoS-wide.” 

Harvard's Jack Goldsmith in Seven Thoughts on Wikileaks writes:

"Whatever one thinks of what Assange is doing, the flailing U.S. government reaction has been self-defeating.  It cannot stop the publication of the documents that have already leaked out, and it should stop trying, for doing so makes the United States look very weak and gives the documents a greater significance than they deserve.  It is also weak and pointless to prevent U.S. officials from viewing the wikileaks documents that the rest of the world can easily see.  [...] The best thing to do – I realize that this is politically impossible – would be to ignore Assange and fix the secrecy system so this does not happen again.

Fix the system, right, we have no argument with that.  And while somebody is at it, how come we have not seen heads roll from this SIPRENet snafu? Wherever the alleged leaker downloaded these cables, there was somebody responsible who was asleep at the ports.  Where is that responsible person overseeing the IT operation in that theater?

What bothers us most about this is the knee jerk reactions. Shut it down, shut it down fast --- but the ass has left the barn; it ceased to matter whether you close it fast or faster.  Don't look, don't look -- probably one of the most notorious game changing events this year, and we're asking people to go walking with covered eyes while the rest of the world ogle these cables? 

We've also learned that just because they're out in the Internets and in the public domain does not mean they're actually in public domain and no longer classified. They still are restricted, need to know materials -- until they are appropriately declassified in -- oh, I don't know -- 2035 or thereafter.

And of course, just because the US Government is telling employees not to read the WikiLeaks cables does not mean that these "alleged" cables actually belong to the US Government.  The order not to read is not/not a confirmation or denial of ownership.  But don't read the cables. 

Ahhgggg! I'm getting a headache of dinosaurian proportion here.

Look-- I was eating grapes today.  I peel them sometimes, okay? And I thought -- the cables are now naked as these peeled grapes.  The exocarps, er skins, peels, covers, are gone.

And US government employees are made to think and behave as if these are still grapes with skins on. 

Isn't this  just a tad absurd? No?

But the whole world now knows and sees that these are naked grapes. We can see the seeds and the locules from everywhere! 

Is there a real purpose in perpetuating the cover of secrecy after its blown besides well, perpetuating it? Before long, the only people on earth who will be blissfully ignorant of these cables are US Government employees.  Tell me again that this is the best we can do for cybersecurity.

Related item:
State Department memo on the screening of accredited diplomats.

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