The Obama administration has asked federal employees not to read the documents published by WikiLeaks.

In a classic case of shutting the barn door after the horse has left, the Obama administration and the Department of Defense are reminding the hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors not to read the secret cables and other classified documents published by WikiLeaks and news organisations around the world unless the workers have the required security clearance or authorisation.

“Classified information, whether or not already posted on public websites or disclosed to the media, remains classified, and must be treated as such by federal employees and contractors, until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. government authority,” said a notice sent on Friday afternoon by the Office of Management and Budget to agency and department heads, urging them to distribute it to their staff.

The directive applies to both government computers and private devices that employees or contractors might have, as long as those devices have access to non-classified government networks. It does not advise agencies to block WikiLeaks or other websites on government computer systems, a White House official said on Saturday.

And it does not prohibit federal employees from reading news stories about the topic. But if they have “accidentally” downloaded any documents, they are being told, they should notify their “information security offices.”

The Department of Defense, in its own directive to military personnel and contractors, says that simply reading these documents, without proper authorisation, will violate longstanding rules even though they are accessible on Internet sites.

“Viewing or downloading still-classified documents from unclassified government computers creates a security violation,” a spokeswoman said in a statement on Saturday.

The effort, while understandable, seems entirely futile, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington non-profit group that has fought government efforts to keep certain documents secret, but that did not support the public release of the WikiLeaks material.

“It just may be a little too late for the government to push these documents down the memory hole,” Mr. Rotenberg said.

The Library of Congress has joined in the push, blocking visitors to its reading rooms, or anyone else using its computer system, from accessing the WikiLeaks site, noting that “unauthorised disclosures of classified documents do not alter the documents' classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents.” — New York Times News Service

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