Taking a hard line after devastating leaks, the Pentagon is ordering workers to delete from their computers any classified information they find online and warning it will punish those who confirm secrets already in the public domain, according to an internal memo obtained by the Washington Guardian.
Pentagon officials say the memo with the stern warnings was sent earlier this month in reponse to alleged leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that revealed sensitive details about the government's secret surveillance efforts.
"DOD employees and contractors who seek out classified information in the public domain, acknowledge its accuracy or existence, or proliferate the information in any way will be subject to sanctions," reads the memo from Timothy Davis, Pentagon Director of Security. "It is the responsibility of every DOD employee and contractor to protect classified information and to follow established procedures for accessing classified information only through authorized means."
Even if information has been leaked, and even if it is being widely reported by the press, Pentagon workers should still consider the information classified, said Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, a Pentagon spokesman.
"Just because something’s been leaked to the general public, we still have to treat it as classified," Pickart said.
Steven Aftergood, a national security and secrecy expert with the Federation of American Scientists, said the Pentagon should face the reality that sometimes things get leaked to the press.
"Pretending that classified information that everyone knows about is still classified doesn't make much sense," he said. "Sooner or later, it is necessary to bring classification policy into alignment with the reality of public awareness through declassification."
Still, military officials have their reasons for demanding publicly available info not be downloaded or disseminated, Aftergood said.
"This seems like a short-sighted response, but from the Pentagon's point of view it is a logical one. That's because, strictly speaking, classified information does not automatically become unclassified just because it has been leaked.
The memo, dated June 7, lists a clear set of rules for accessing information. No one should connect to or download sensitive information while on an unsecured or public computer, the notice says. But employees and contractors who find classified information in public places - say, reported by the media - must immediately delete the information from their computers and notify their "security manager" - policies that would stop them from reading about leaks online.
"Leadership must establish a vigilant command climate that underscores the critical importance of safeguarding classified material against compromise," the memo reads.
Pickart said only once information has been declassified through official channels can Pentagon personnel treat it as public.
"We make every effort to balance the need to preserve information access with operational security, however there are strict policies and directives in place regarding protecting and handling classified information," he said. "Until declassified by appropriate officials, classified information - including material released through an unauthorized disclosure - must be treated accordingly by DOD personnel."
But Aftergood pointed out some leaders are recognizing there's little use in plugging the leak after the information has spilled out.
"We are already starting to see some of that, as officials publicly acknowledge what was still classified a week or two ago," he said.
The memo, Pickart said, isn't a change in Pentagon policy, simply a reissuing of existing guidelines. It was sent in direct response to Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who claims to have released sensitive information on surveillance programs the government ran on U.S. citizens in an effort to thwart terrorism.
"This is a bit unprecedented," Pickart said. "The last time we had something of this scope was WikiLeaks."
The department has changed its policies in the past in response to releases of sensitive information. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is suspected of using a thumb drive to download thousands of classified documents which he then gave to the whistleblower website, WikiLeaks. In response, Pickart said the Pentagon has severely restricted the use of thumb drives and other removable storage units, in some cases banning them all together.
Manning, meanwhile, is facing a court martial on suspicion of leaking the intel.
Pickart said the agency doesn't restrict what websites its employees can view, but does use a filter to cut down on visits to potentially unsecured sites, or those with malware and other viruses. Any suspected breach in security means a lot of work for DOD personnel, Pickart said.
"Those machines have to be wiped and cleaned," he said. "It’s very costly. It’s time intensive."