U.S. government scientists are being blocked from accessing WikiLeaks' Web sites for fear it will "contaminate" their computers, CNET has learned.
Starting last week, Department of Energy installations began barring access to WikiLeaks and its myriad of mirror sites, which have been disclosing confidential State Department documents on a daily basis.
"Sandia has blocked the site and its mirrors," said Stephanie Holinka, a spokeswoman at Sandia National Laboratories' Albuquerque headquarters. A spokesman for Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Va., confirmed it's also "blocking access to WikiLeaks and its mirror sites."
Mark Leininger, Fermilab's computer security manager, wrote in an internal newsletter that WikiLeaks' Web site was being blocked because workers at the Batavia, Ill.-based lab could be at risk if they view classified information without being specifically approved for it.
"There is some risk to you as an individual of being involved in an investigation if you view or possess classified information," Leininger warned. He did not respond to questions from CNET about how frequently the list of blocked Web sites would be updated and whether newspaper Web sites would be blocked too.
It's in part a symbolic move--after all, government employees can read the cables at home or watch them discussed on the evening news--and also one spurred by security regulations that were never designed to deal with an era of torrential Internet leaks. (An executive order that President Obama signed last year says that "classified information shall not be declassified automatically as a result of any unauthorized disclosure.")
The move to cordon off WikiLeaks comes as a noose appears to be tightening around the neck of editor Julian Assange, who is the target of an arrest warrant issued today in the U.K., according to a BBC report. He could appear in a U.K. court tomorrow, according to the Guardian. In addition, WikiLeaks' finances are being systematically attacked, with the Swiss authorities shutting down one of Assange's bank accounts and PayPal permanently restricting the account used by the group.
In the week or so, U.S. politicians have stepped up their criticism of the document-sharing site, which has posted only about 1,000 of 251,000 State Department dispatches it says it has and has shifted to the WikiLeaks.ch domain.
"I think the man is a high-tech terrorist," Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said yesterday, referring to Assange. "He has done enormous damage to our country." And the incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee wants WikiLeaks listed as a "terrorist" organization.
The Library of Congress, part of the legislative branch, acknowledged blocking WikiLeaks in a blog post on Friday. Also that day, the White House's Office of Management and Budget told federal workers not to visit WikiLeaks' Web site--but stopped short at ordering that it, or its mirror sites, be blocked.
"That guidance did not advise agencies to block WikiLeaks or other Web sites on government computer systems," an OMB spokeswoman told CNET today.
That decision appears to have originated with the Department of Energy, which sent a memo to its installations saying: "Any document that is on an Internet Web site that is purported to be classified cannot be downloaded to an unclassified computer system without contaminating the unclassified computer system."
Fermilab's Leininger echoed this, telling employees that, "if someone downloaded a classified document to a computer on the Fermilab network, our network would be considered 'contaminated.'"
A spokesman for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which was once a key part of the Manhattan Project, said the lab has computers that are approved to store classified information. WikiLeaks is being blocked, the spokesman said, because workers "should not be accessing classified information" on unapproved machines.
Melinda Lee, a representative of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, which is operated by Stanford University, said: "Viewing classified material using SLAC's computing infrastructure is a violation of government security regulations and would jeopardize our status as an unclassified research laboratory."
Lee did not immediately respond to questions about whether employees were also restricted from accessing news articles and blogs that summarized or excerpted classified material.