Air Force points censorship weapon at its own head

The New York Times is reporting the Air Force has put blocks on sites posting secret cables released by WikiLeaks, preventing employees in Air Force facilities from reading them.

This isn't WikiLeaks itself; these are news sites reposting the content -- newspapers including The Times and The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and a range of U.S-based outlets.

Censorship in general is a bad idea, especially if you're trying to keep people from reading something that's already widely available and that they can't help but having heard a lot about. If they want to read something scandalous or, just as often, read all the stuff written about something scandalous (because the cables themselves are numerous and tiresome), it's almost impossible to stop them.

Religious organizations might be able to convince people to not look. Or convince them that , having looked, they should ignore or refuse to emulate whatever the content is that you fear.

Just telling adults they can't read something juicy works about as well as telling a three-year-old not to eat the box of SugarBombs cereal with the prize in the box that's on the bottom cabinet.

Unless you put a mean dog in the cabinet to guard the cereal, double lock the door and hide the key, that kid is going to be elbow deep in SugarBombs before you get back from the bathroom. Maybe even if you do.

This is the military, though. They live on secrecy and rules. As an organization the Air Force is unable to condone the breaking of secrecy rules by allowing junior-grades to read things they shouldn't, even if the brass has to read it first to confirm how terrible it is.

So blocking some news sites from Air Force networks for a while until the furor over CableGate dies down is not a big deal. Airmen can read the stuff elsewhere and stick to the straight and narrow at work.

But the rest of the DoD has not joined in the restriction. None of the other services has blocked the sites, and a DoD spokesperson said it had nothing to do with the policy.

That seems to be a chink in the wall of security.

Given that the Air Force has maneuvered itself into the position of the leading service in the global war on the Internet the development of cyberwar capabilities, it seems a little naive to shut off access to news sites that posted secret content when that content is available and publicly discussed in so many others.

Air Force spokespeople defended the decision by saying it cut off access just as it would to any other site that posted secret content. They have a point. If it's secret and you have an obligation to keep those secrets, you should limit its distribution where you can.

But if you're keeping the information from your own people and everyone else (who, presumably, are your targets in both real and cyberwar) can get the information, are you really pointing your weapons in the right direction?

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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