Air Force blocks media sites posting leaked cables

Image: Julian Assange
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange listens during a news conference in London, Oct. 23, 2010.Luke Macgregor / Reuters file
/ Source: NBC, msnbc.com and news services

The U.S. Air Force has blocked employees from visiting media websites carrying leaked WikiLeaks documents, including The New York Times and the Guardian, a spokesman said on Tuesday.

Major Toni Tones, a spokeswoman at Air Force Space Command in Colorado, said the command had blocked employees whose computers are connected to the Air Force network from accessing at least 25 websites that have posted WikiLeaks documents. No complete list of websites was immediately available.

The Air Force "routinely blocks Air Force network access to websites hosting inappropriate materials or malware (malicious software) and this includes any website that hosts classified materials and those that are released by WikiLeaks," she said.

The Air Force move comes as the U.S. government seeks to minimize the damage from WikiLeaks' release of 250,000 State Department cables through media outlets and on its own website.

The cables released last month, which reveal blunt, sometimes derisive depictions of foreign governments and leaders, have been an embarrassment for Washington.

Past releases this year by WikiLeaks contained sensitive information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Washington said compromised national security and put people at risk.

Info still classified
The Pentagon had already prohibited its employees from viewing WikiLeaks documents online, no matter how widely they are published, but it has not blocked access to websites that post leaked cables.

Pentagon officials have instructed employees they "shouldn't access the WikiLeaks site because the information there is still considered classified," said Colonel David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.

Pentagon and military officials told NBC News that in an effort to keep classified documents released by WikiLeaks off unclassified Air Force computers has the potential to block access to any website. Enforcing that, however, becomes another matter, the officials said.

For websites that may post a relatively small number of classified documents as part of a WikiLeaks-related story, someone who may have accessed the story on an unclassified computer may have to notify cyber-security personnel to "scrub" that computer to remove the classified material, NBC News reported.

Pentagon officials say this has happened before when WikiLeaks first released the classified Afghanistan documents. The Air Force, Navy and Marines then blocked access to WikiLeaks, and websites that had posted substantial numbers of the documents.

Those bans were eventually lifted and Pentagon officials say it's unclear how long the Air Force prohibition will remain in place.

Several federal agencies have acted to cut off the reading of the WikiLeaks websites by federal employees. The Library of Congress (where Congressional Research Service analysts work) and NASA, for example, have blocked access to the WikiLeaks websites from employee computers.

Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security sent out a strongly worded memo to all employees and contractors telling them that not only may they not “download or attempt to download” any of the classified WikiLeaks memos onto their computers, they also may not “discuss the content” of such “potentially classified” documents “with persons who would not otherwise be authorized access.”