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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

No-read directives authenticate
documents aired by Wikileaks
When Wikileaks documents go online, we have the peculiar situation of government officials, apparently led by the attorney general, ordering various people to avoid reading them, based on the theory that it is illegal to read classified data.

Whatever happened to the response of neither confirming nor denying the authenticity of leaked documents?
It would seem that by ordering government employees and even lawyers for Guantanamo detainees to avoid reading the "classified material," the government is confirming the authenticity of the documents and hence is de facto declassifying it.

Obviously the wealth of detail in the Wikileaks documents makes it difficult to deflect the political reactions by simply playing dumb. But that's no reason for in effect fully confirming their authenticity. If the government said nothing much, then there would be no proof that documents hadn't been tampered with prior to release.

One would think the constitutional lawyer occupying the presidency would grasp this. So what's going on?

It appears that the Justice Department wants to uphold a novel legal theory: government officials should have the right to prohibit selected persons -- who have been convicted of no crime -- from receiving information in the public domain. Perhaps this is an outgrowth of the notion that the government should have a right -- in contradiction to the First Amendment's abridgement clause -- to block those deemed possible terrorists from access to information that, though public, might further some terroristic plot.

The Justice Department, Pentagon and CIA are of course very leery of using prior restraint on news organizations. But if they can reinforce the idea that classes of people can be roped off from public data, they will accomplish a drastic reduction in free speech rights. Right now, only "a few" people are affected (well, actually in theory millions of government employees). But give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile... especially with respect to freedom of speech.

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