When Ed Snowden first gave his cache of documents to reporters, there were two sets handed out. Most famously, one set went to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewan MacAskill, who went to Hong Kong on behalf of the Guardian. And the other set went to Bart Gellman, who wrote up reports on them (technically as a freelancer) for the Washington Post. Yesterday, Gellman wrote about a crazy story in which Purdue University absolutely freaked out
, after it realized that Gellman gave a keynote speech -- for an event organized by the University President, and which Gellman had been specifically asked to give -- that showed some of the previously released Snowden documents during his presentation. Despite promising Gellman that the talk had been recorded and a link and a copy of the video would be sent to him, instead, Purdue ended up deleting the whole thing and basically stopped responding to him.
The reason? Apparently Purdue has a deal with the US government, in order to perform classified research on behalf of the government. To do this, the university had to get "facility security clearance." And, in order to keep that status, it has to abide by certain rules on "classified information spillage." Apparently, some at Purdue decided to overreact entirely, which Gellman discovered as soon as the Q&A section opened up:
If I had the spider sense that we journalists like to claim, I might have seen trouble coming. One of the first questions in the Q & A that followed my talk was:
"In the presentation you just gave, you were showing documents that were TS/SCI [top secret, sensitive compartmented information] and things like that. Since documents started to become published, has the NSA issued a declass order for that?"
I took the opportunity to explain the government’s dilemmas when classified information becomes available to anyone with an internet connection. I replied:
"These documents, by and large, are still classified. And in many cases, if you work for the government and you have clearance, you’re not allowed to go look at them…"
"Now, it’s perfectly rational for them to say, we’re not going to declassify everything that gets leaked because otherwise we’re letting someone else decide what’s classified and what’s not. But it gets them wound up in pretty bad knots."
By way of example, I mentioned that the NSA, CIA, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence “have steadfastly refused to give me a secure channel to communicate with them” about the Snowden leaks. Bound by rules against mingling classified and unclassified communications networks, they will not accept, for example, encrypted emails from me that discuss Top Secret material. In service of secrecy rules, they resort to elliptical conversation on open telephone lines.
My remarks did not answer the question precisely enough for one post-doctoral research engineer. He stood, politely, to nail the matter down.