State Department Redacts Wikileaks Cables

The ACLU filed a FOIA request for a bunch of cables that Wikileaks had already released complete versions of. This is what happened:

The agency released redacted versions of 11 and withheld the other 12 in full.

The five excerpts below show the government's selective and self-serving decisions to withhold information. Because the leaked versions of these cables have already been widely distributed, the redacted releases provide unique insight into the government's selective decisions to hide information from the American public.

Click on the link to see what was redacted.

EDITED TO ADD (3/2): Commentary:

The Freedom of Information Act provides exceptions for a number of classes of information, but the State Department’s declassification decisions appear to be based not on the criteria specified in the statute, but rather on whether the documents embarrass the US or portray the US in a negative light.

Posted on March 1, 2012 at 1:32 PM • 27 Comments

Comments

JohnstonMarch 1, 2012 2:23 PM

Since Bush left office I had forgotten the ACLU existed. I'm glad to see they still (?) care about civil liberties.

MesocosmicMarch 1, 2012 2:55 PM

Yikes, Johnston, where have you been? The ACLU has been extremely vocal during the Obama years on issues ranging from the indefinite detention provisions of the NDAA to the targeting of Anwar Al-Awlaki, whom they sought to represent, with death.

MMMMarch 1, 2012 4:23 PM

I'm not sure much is to be gained by calling the US Government "self-serving" (in a negative way) when they declare something classified... isn't that, by definition, the point of doing such a thing?

Read the wikipedia article: "Classified information in the United States".

I'll probably have a lot of tonfoil hats thrown at me for suggesting this, but one could reasonably argue that diplomatically embarrassing information is detrimental to national security.

LqqkOutMarch 1, 2012 4:34 PM

@Johnston - [slightly off-topic] The ACLU has also been fighting for the LGBTQ community, including: victims and families of anti-gay bullying/murder, discriminatory school district policies [i.e. barring same-sex couples from prom], marriage equality, and a host of other legal action around gender/sexuality issues.

[more on-topic] They've done quite a bit of TSA-bashing in the past year too!

In conclusion, I think the ACLU has been quite active and that there's a perspective difference at play.

VickiMarch 1, 2012 7:11 PM

Diplomatically embarrassing information might be detrimental to national security (depending on the specifics and your definition of national security--I can't get to aclu.org at the moment). However, once that information is in the public domain, attempting to hide it is unlikely to produce anything but another brand of embarrassment.

Peter E RetepMarch 1, 2012 8:15 PM

Some reads like the old LBJ MacNamara classifications:
The enemy already know the action;
Our actors know what they did;
The foreign governments publicly know it.
The press overseas knows it.
Who then is it being classified to conceal it from?

Jenny JunoMarch 1, 2012 9:34 PM

@Peter Palindrome

The reason the documents were excised is almost certainly because of process. Just because a document has been disclosed by someone else does not automatically declassify it.

It looks stupid from the outside but anyone who has exeperience handling classified documents knows that 99% of it is all "do it by the book" so that the person doing the handling has full CYA in case a mistake is made.

When viewed from the CYA perspective it all makes complete sense. Of course, as many have pointed out, this extreme risk aversion creates new risks - like bringing attention to the parts that were excised. But some would argue that the new risks are still less of a problem than the ones that the official process prevents.

fbmMarch 2, 2012 2:00 AM

Just because classified information is widely available through non-secure channels does not preclude the responsibility of government workers to protect its security - if it comes from the government. They have a responsibility to treat the information in its classified state and release as-applicable. There's no huge self-serving conspiracy going on.
Example - if someone had pilfered your classified company data and published it on the internet, then turned around and officially asked you for it, would you give it to them in plain-text? Probably not.

fbmMarch 2, 2012 2:01 AM

I also meant to say that because it's widely available through non-secure means doesn't mean it's been declassified.

AC2March 2, 2012 5:43 AM

Newflash: Govt publishes self-serving documents under FOIA. Details at 11...

SparkyGSXMarch 2, 2012 6:10 AM

Whether or not it makes sense to censor information that has already been published by others hardly seems relevant to me.

By censoring these documents, the government has actually published more information: an insight into their censoring procedures and rules. We now know what they censored in these documents, and reasonably assume they will censor similar parts of other documents, of which we do not have the full text. It strongly suggests any redacted material they release is highly biased in their favor.

SnallaBolagetMarch 2, 2012 7:45 AM

Executive Order 13526:
Sec. 1.4. Classification Categories.
Information shall not be considered for classification unless its unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security in accordance with section 1.2 of this order, and it pertains to one or more of the following:
(a)   military plans, weapons systems, or operations;
(b)   foreign government information;
(c)   intelligence activities (including covert action), intelligence sources or methods, or cryptology;
(d)   foreign relations or foreign activities of the United States, including confidential sources;
(e)   scientific, technological, or economic matters relating to the national security;
(f)   United States Government programs for safeguarding nuclear materials or facilities;
(g)   vulnerabilities or capabilities of systems, installations, infrastructures, projects, plans, or protection services relating to the national security; or
(h)   the development, production, or use of weapons of mass destruction.

Can their redaction actually be proven to be valid? It seems that there's no way that the information can be a threat to national security, also since the info is already out. Classifying the documents in the first place might actually have been a breach of the exec.order.
Or?

Brett OMarch 2, 2012 8:19 AM

As stated by several, just because some anarchists/hackers published it publically doesnt make it unclassified. No conspiracy here, no silliness. HOW does "redacted releases provide unique insight into the government's selective decisions to hide information from the American public" - there is no insight, and nothing at all selective. on the contrary, it most likely is a blanket, standard response following prescribed procedures and standards.

The staffers that complied with the request did what they legally could.

Is the ACLU expecting them to voluntarily join Mr Manning? Really?

Brett OMarch 2, 2012 8:26 AM

As stated by several, just because some anarchists/hackers published it publically doesnt make it unclassified. No conspiracy here, no silliness. HOW does "redacted releases provide unique insight into the government's selective decisions to hide information from the American public" - there is no insight, and nothing at all selective. on the contrary, it most likely is a blanket, standard response following prescribed procedures and standards.

The staffers that complied with the request did what they legally could.

Is the ACLU expecting them to voluntarily join Mr Manning? Really?

TimHMarch 2, 2012 8:55 AM

The straw man above is that the material is being supplied redacted above by government, whilst plaintext is available elsewhere.

I don't think that's the ACLU's point, for the reasons everyone has made - it's still classified.

I think the ACLU is showing how the issues being classified simply show the US government in poor light to it's people. They are not state security secrets. Classification is being used to protect the government from the anger of its own people, the people it is meant to be serving.

sparksMarch 2, 2012 12:34 PM

It's much like the old Yes, (Prime?) Minister joke about the Official Secrets Act, "It's not to protect secrets, but to protect officials". FOIA redactions are likely often to protect officials from the people they serve rather than to protect any national security interest.

JessMarch 2, 2012 1:04 PM

To be fair, TimH, I don't think most Americans lose sleep over what the Dutch, Swiss, and Portuguese think of our nation or its policies with respect to extrajudicial kidnapping and torture. (To those who didn't click through, that was the topic of the redacted material on the linked page.) I'm more disturbed that most Americans lose little sleep over the extrajudicial kidnapping and torture in the first place! I can see how this material might be considered confidential, analogous to a company executive's frank appraisals of the methods and goals of various business partners. "Confidential" is not the same as "classified", however. The former implies civil remedies, while the latter can entail a long drop on a short rope.

So, must all redactions from FOIA material be of "classified" status? I had thought there were exceptions for individual privacy or commercial/industrial secrets, but that could just be my mind playing tricks on me.

For all of you who crow "classified!" or "it's OK because we know the process errs on the side of classifying everything!", however, doesn't this give you pause? Previously we've seen examples of items classified for obviously self-serving reasons (e.g. all records of the multi-billion-dollar IT project at the CIA that resulted in a completely unusable system). This material, however, isn't even that. These diplomatic opinions are hidden from the public for no reason that I can see. We know that with enough eyes, all bugs are shallow. How is it a good thing that we employ entire agencies to shield policy bugs from public view?

JLMarch 2, 2012 1:26 PM

Under FOIA regulations, State had to reply with something, or offer a good reason why they could not. To release the original, unredacted cables would have violated their own security policy. But to release redacted information, knowing that the unredacted version is readily available, risks leaking information: specifically, the contents of the applicable security classification guide, itself classified information.

State was in a real bind here; should they defy the law, knowingly violate security policy, or look like a hypocrite?

One possibility that has not been mentioned: release the cables, but with redactions intended to communicate wrong information to your adversaries. Could the State Department have been that clever?

SomeoneMarch 2, 2012 1:27 PM

It's true that we shouldn't expect documents to be automatically declassified just because they are leaked. There is nothing remarkable about the fact that these documents are redacted.

But that's not the point. The point is whether the government is using appropriate criteria to decide WHICH parts of the documents to redact.

Random832March 2, 2012 2:30 PM

"But that's not the point. The point is whether the government is using appropriate criteria to decide WHICH parts of the documents to redact."

Someone should FOIA asking for the criteria. Are there any legal remedies available if the criteria they use are not appropriate, or if they do not in practice use the criteria they have written down?

JRRMarch 2, 2012 6:30 PM

By releasing an official redacted version of these documents, they give prosecutors a benchmark to show "this is the damage that one released document does over the redacted version - multiply that by X thousand released Wikileaks documents."

I wouldn't be surprised if this is the reason for the release.

SmileyMarch 5, 2012 12:35 AM

Nice job, State. By redacting the cables, you have amplified WikiLeaks's content. Your, um, annotation has pointed out the 'good' parts!

wernerdMarch 5, 2012 2:51 AM

Agree with some comments above: it's just another sort of a "known plaintext attack" :-) .

Using both availabe documents one can determine the redaction (i.e. censoring) rules.

JohnMarch 5, 2012 7:30 AM

This is hypothetical (I didn't click through, but trusted the comments to give me the general gist of the article), but there could be another reason for continuing to redact. Suppose the document released had been changed. Information was substituted or guessed at from an originally redacted source in the hopes of getting a 'well its already out there anyway' response of full release. Numerous problems with this (complexity, how much internal knowledge the original leak had, etc.) I realize, but just b/c a document is leaked, doesn't make it accurate. Its the same reason you don't start agreeing with someone when they say true things, since you might hesitate when they come across the piece of data that you didn't want to reveal and you hesitate.

SkukkukMarch 5, 2012 3:02 PM

Nice job, State. By redacting the cables, you have amplified WikiLeaks's content. Your, um, annotation has pointed out the 'good' parts!

Juan was taught from out the best edition,
Expurgated by learned men, who place
Judiciously, from out the schoolboy's vision,
The grosser parts; but, fearful to deface
Too much their modest bard by this omission,
And pitying sore his mutilated case,
They only add them all in an appendix,
Which saves, in fact, the trouble of an index....

BartonApril 2, 2012 4:32 PM

I'm a little late to this party, but I'll just point out that declassifying material to respond to a FOIA request will also effectively declassify the Wikileaks version. This doesn't make a difference to most people – gov't will still be able to prosecute people who shared the information when it was secret, and will still be unlikely to actually do so – but it does eliminate one potential discriminator in the security clearance process. "This guy (or girl)'s untrustworthy because he shares declassified documents on bittorrent" is a lot different from "this guy's untrustworthy because he shares secret documents on bittorrent."

Also, declassifciation is basically an admission of defeat. If they do that, then future dissenters may employ it as a fast-track to FOIA release for other things. Missile silo blueprints? Transmission equipment on Air Force One? Lists of NOC agents? Information wants to be free.

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