Blocking Access to Wikileaks May Harm CRS, Analysts Say

12.06.10 | 4 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Library of Congress confirmed on Friday 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.

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,” said one CRS analyst. “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 cellphones 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.”

“I can understand LOC blocking the public’s access to Wikileaks,” a former CRS analyst said.  “It would have no control over someone from the public using classified information for impermissible or improper purposes.  [But] the connection between LOC and CRS has always been somewhat fuzzy because Congress intended CRS to have a certain amount of autonomy.  There should be room for CRS to adopt a different policy, particularly for specialists who have security clearances, know how to protect classified information, and can be entrusted to use Wikileaks appropriately.  To me, it is a wrong course to simply close the door tightly without searching for a compromise needed to continue providing Congress with high-level professional analysis.”

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.

“I understand the rationale behind the policy decision to preclude government agencies from making the information available via their sites as a matter of pure principle.  On the other hand (as CRS is famous for saying), in some cases 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.”

“As an example, when [CRS Middle East analyst] Ken Katzman writes on U.S. policy towards Iran I don’t know how he could meet the high professional standards for completeness and accuracy he routinely meets if he can’t refer to the information in the [leaked] diplomatic notes that express the thoughts of key leaders in the region on the need to strike Iran’s nuclear program.  The same with North Korea; how do you provide Congress complete and accurate analysis to inform their decision making that ignores the [leaked] information on China’s increasing frustration with Pyongyang?  The examples could go on and on.”

“I’m sure public policy analysts from other organizations are going to use the [Wikileaks] information and their reports may prove more valuable to decision makers than CRS reports,” the former CRS employee said.

Another former analyst questioned the legal basis for the Library of Congress’s action.

“In its press release, LOC seems to be saying that it is following OMB advice regarding the obligation of federal agencies and federal employees to protect classified information and to otherwise protect the integrity of government information technology systems.  But LOC is statutorily chartered as the library of the House and the Senate.  It is a legislative branch agency.  I don’t recall either chamber directing the blocking of access to Wikileaks for/or by its committees, offices, agencies, or Members.”

Interestingly, the OMB guidance did not require federal agencies to block access to Wikileaks, only to warn employees against downloading classified information.  So by imposing such blocks, the Library of Congress has actually exceeded the instructions of OMB.

The Library did not reply to an inquiry from Secrecy News over the weekend concerning the impact of its restricted access policy on CRS.  If a reply is forthcoming, it will be posted here.