SIPA Shushing Students over CableGate. Seriously?

Yesterday a friend forwarded me a link to a blog post about Wikileaks. Not surprising, given the number of Wikileaks-related blog posts that are floating around the Internet in the wake of the organization’s release of a quarter of a million U.S. Embassy cables. But this blog post was different: this blog post referenced the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), from which I graduated six months ago.

The author reposts an e-mail sent from SIPA’s Office of Career Services to all current students. It reads:

From: “Office of Career Services”

Date: November 30, 2010 15:26:53 ESTTo:

Hi students,

We received a call today from a SIPA alumnus who is working at the State Department. He asked us to pass along the following information to anyone who will be applying for jobs in the federal government, since all would require a background investigation and in some instances a security clearance.

The documents released during the past few months through Wikileaks are still considered classified documents. He recommends that you DO NOT post links to these documents nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter. Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.

Regards,
Office of Career Services

I’m currently happily employed at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, but while I was at SIPA I seriously considered a career in the Foreign Service. I applied for (and was offered) a summer internship at the State Department, and I coordinated a conference on Policy Making in the Digital Age, at which the State Department’s Director of the Office of eDiplomacy and a representative of the Office of Innovative Engagement spoke.

I guess I can kiss that possible alternate career path goodbye, given that I tweeted a link yesterday to an article about CableGate. Seriously, State Department? This is all over the news. What’s more, it’s become a focal point for discussions on how digital technology is changing our expectations for government transparency (for those who’ve forgotten: the State Department is big on using tech to promote transparency in other countries. Just not here in the US?).

Seriously, SIPA? As fellow SIPA alum Ben Colmery pointed out in a comment on my Facebook wall, since when does having an opinion about a site leaking documents equate to actually leaking documents oneself? You claim to provide committed students with the necessary skills and perspectives to become responsible leaders. Apparently that means curtailing their academic freedom and teaching them how to bury their heads in the sand.

Crossposted on The Morningside Post

Update, December 6: The State Department is denying that it provided “advice to anyone beyond the State Department” regarding Wikileaks and claiming the information in the OCS email “does not represent a formal policy position.”

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  • That SIPA alumnus should focus on the job he is paid for by US tax dolars.

  • La Raison

    There are so many things wrong with this scenario I don’t know where to start – and not for the reasons mentioned above:

    1) This is not official guidance by the State Dept. This is some employee going well outside of their role by calling their alma mater and making their own personal recommendation to students.

    2) The second head-scratcher is how anyone reads SIPA’s email and then decides they can kiss goodbye any shot at a job with State. It’s one person’s opinion on actions which could call into question your judgment. You really want to disqualify yourself that readily?

    Regardless there are kernels of truth here. There is an internal memo which advises *employees* that the mere fact that information is leaked does not declassify it and that it should be handled appropriately.

    And there is a section of the SF86 form – required if you want a security clearance – which asks about the way in which you’ve handled confidential information. And, yes, I’d imagine if you’re working on behalf of Wikileaks or in some way facilitating its mission then you may have an uphill climb. But simply reading the front page of the New York Times or commenting on information that is readily available is not really the kind of thing that will get you dinged in a clearance investigation.

    As usual, lots more heat than light in the wiki debate. Hopefully this adds some of the latter…

  • Yes, just not [there] in the US. Now you are enlightened (more). ๐Ÿ™‚ And you still will be the ones who monitor our elections and try to tell us what voting means. You still will be the ones sending your pubescent kids over here to lecture on freedom of speech. At least when next time we kill them en masse, the cables will have something interesting to say about Uganda. ๐Ÿ˜€

    Check out Dave Winer’s latest post (well, one of the latest) about this cable stuff.

  • justAstudent

    Yes you can discuss and blablabla everything. Sorry, but in essence everyone should support Freedom of Speech, especially Universities. Cowards. I tweet all day long about Cablegate and I seed the torrent, I recommend you do all the same thing.

  • @Rebekah — the email reads “He recommends that you DO NOT post links to these documents…”. I see what you’re saying given the emphasis, but I also assume students (perhaps naively) will read it like I did — this is what someone said about the situation, take it or leave it

  • @David: I’m more understanding of a theoretical warning not to download or torrent the cables, but the OCS e-mail states, “DO NOT…make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter.” Meaning a Facebook wall post with a link to a NYTimes article about CableGate or a tweet expressing a personal opinion about the event is out of the question. That’s what I find the most egregious about this situation.

  • Sorry, but I don’t see anything crazy about that message. Everything you say is inherently reasonable, but legally those documents are still classified even though they can be viewed by the public.

    A federal employee could get in very serious trouble for sharing them or simply downloading them. I work at a national science lab which only deals with unclassified information, and they’ve had to restrict wikileaks access because the lab itself could get in huge trouble if classified documents are on the network, and because employees could jeopardize their careers by viewing them.

    Is that somewhat silly? Sure. But I wouldn’t say SIPA is proactively “shushing” anyone — they are warning students of possible repercussions of looking at the wikileaks cables, which are very real. This is a case where you shouldn’t shoot the messenger.