Americans in danger of breaking law if they access WikiLeaks?

Posted Dec 7, 2010 by Samantha A. Torrence
According to Executive Order 13526 signed by President Obama in 2009, classified information does not lose its security classification even if it is leaked. So what are the dangers of accessing classified information?
Earlier this week reports surfaced that students at Columbia University received an email stating that accessing WikiLeaks or blogging, writing, twittering, or communicating the information contained on Wikileaks could possibly inhibit their access to future government jobs. The email posted by The Arabist cited information from an anonymous employee of the state department. The Gawker later reported that State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson said that she was unaware of the directive. However, she did say that people should be cautious when writing about wikileaks and to not cross the line between talking about a current event and disseminating or reading classified information. The Gawker report also included criticism against the United States military for restricting access to wikileaks and warning military members against accessing information.
From the Gawker: A tipster wrote to tell us that "the Army's unclassified, NIPRNET network in Iraq has blocked every major news website because of the Wikileaks issue," going on to say that,,, the Huffington Post, and a variety of other sites are blocked on the Army's unclassified network. A spokesperson for U.S. forces in Iraq disputed that claim, saying that the web sites aren't actually blocked—it's just that attempts to access them on the unclassified network brings up a warning page saying that you're about to break the law.
While the Gawker suggests that the military must have "lost it," there is a method behind the madness.
Ignorantia juris non excusat may not apply as harshly to the average United States Citizen, but the consequences for the military are far greater. Military computers are now issuing warnings to protect personnel from unwittingly breaking the law and perhaps endangering their career as well as their permanent record. Skeptics seem to believe this is a military ploy to keep soldiers from knowing the dastardly secrets of the upper chain of command, however the law which is being referenced for this action was enacted on December 29, 2009.
Executive Order 13526 Section 1.1(4)(c) is the most pertinent mandate to the issue of Wikileaks' published information.
Section 1.1. Classification Standards. (a) Information may be originally classified under the terms of this order only if all of the following conditions are met:
(1) an original classification authority is classifying the information;
(2) the information is owned by, produced by or for, or is under the control of the United States Government;
(3) the information falls within one or more of the categories of information listed in section 1.4 of this order; and
(4) the original classification authority determines that the unauthorized disclosure of the information reasonably could be expected to result in damage to the national security, which includes defense against transnational terrorism, and the original classification authority is able to identify or describe the damage.
(b) If there is significant doubt about the need to classify information, it shall not be classified. This provision does not:
(1) amplify or modify the substantive criteria or procedures for classification; or
(2) create any substantive or procedural rights subject to judicial review.
(c) Classified information shall not be declassified automatically as a result of any unauthorized disclosure of identical or similar information.
(d) The unauthorized disclosure of foreign government information is presumed to cause damage to the national security.
Further Reading: Executive Order 12958
In essence, the information on Wikileaks is still considered classified, and one must have the appropriate security clearance and need-to-know authorization to access it. The question that remains is, what will happen if an average citizen, or even a military member, were to access or disseminate this information?
Military members who access Wikileaks or any other website to obtain the classified information from installation computers may be subject to prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Symantec corporation offers a clear explanation of the law and the punishments for breaking the law, without the legal jargon and referencing. If convicted one could face fines and jail times up to 10 years for a first offense, and 20 years for subsequent offenses.
Using a non military or government computer may or may not protect you from the above consequences. It is important to remember that while ignorance of the law is pitiable, it is still no excuse.
Civilians and military members accessing the information and forwarding, tweeting, or blogging about the wikileaks information, or sending links can be subject to punishment under
18 U.S.C. § 798 : US Code - Section 798: Disclosure of classified information
. The law states that anyone who knowingly disseminates this information to unauthorized persons, upon conviction, will forfeit all property and monies obtained from the illegal action and be subject to jail time for up to 10 years.
The American government has not taken sweeping action against citizens or even military members for seeing information exposed through Wikileaks. That said, it's clear the framework for prosecution has been established and it's possible that consulting Wikileaks information could become illegal in the future.