How Blocking WikiLeaks Actually Hurts the Government

Last week, the Library of Congress confirmed it's blocking WikiLeaks. Censorship principles aside, the ban has one clear consequence: the Congressional Research Service, responsible for crucial reports to lawmakers, is part of the Library. Now their plug is pulled too.

The government prohibiting the public from using government equipment to disseminate secret government information is perhaps understandable. Politicians consider the leaks illegal and dangerous, and the Library of Congress says the blockage is justified,

Because applicable law obligates federal agencies to protect classified information. Unauthorized disclosures of classified documents do not alter the documents' classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents."

They're claiming their hands are tied, in other words. This doesn't jibe with the facts, however—the Office of Management and Budget, responsible for a government-wide memo regarding WikiLeaks damage control, only asked agencies to warn their employees about the risks surrounding access to the leaks—not to block access outright. In other words, the LoC's explanation doesn't quite add up—it appears they did more than they had to do by law.

So who is this hurting? Not most of the public, who can access WikiLeaks (when its servers are up) from another public library, their home computers, or their phones. But the Library of Congress is way, way more than a library—it houses the Congressional Research Service, whose self-described mission includes "reports on major policy issues, tailored confidential memoranda, briefings and consultations," and "expert congressional testimony." You would think that it would behoove such an agency to have access to as much information as possible—all of it, really—regarding the position of the United States in the world. Even when that information is pretty embarrassing.

Is this a big deal? The Federation of American Scientists quotes current and former CRS employees who sure think so:

"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."

"It would clearly diminish the weight of some of the analysis CRS does on policy issues, particularly on foreign affairs and military strategy where it is widely known that key information that would help inform thoughtful and comprehensive analysis was released on Wikileaks."

It seems as if the Library is kidding itself if it thinks a blanket block will do more good than harm. The box is open—the monsters are out. Anyone with an internet connection and some patience can download leaked cables at will. If the big government nightmare is that these leaked disclosures will somehow harm the safety of the US or its standing in the world, then why deny this same information to those whose job it is to bolster those very things? [FAS]