Although the U.S. government has yet to articulate a clear stance on whether WikiLeaks can be used in academic settings, students seeking guidance on the matter are generally advised to err on the side of caution. Because WikiLeaks documents have not yet been officially declassified, actively pursuing and using these documents could flag students as security risks. The irony of this situation is that, while WikiLeaks provides a plethora of diplomatic, military and financial documents that are valuable to students interested in government service, the same students are self-censoring for fear of complicating their employment prospects.
Samantha, a student familiar with the security clearance process, warned that those planning on pursuing careers in government may be subject to counter-intelligence polygraphs, which ask non-explanatory yes-or-no questions about proper handling of classified materials. If the investigation reveals considerable traffic to leaked materials, it could jeopardize students’ chances for employment and later upward mobility.
Here, Samantha makes an important distinction: “Reading reporting about [WikiLeaks], even if it quotes the classified material, is fine. But actively pursuing and reading source documentation is an extremely bad idea.”
Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer agreed, quipping that WikiLeaks is so pervasive that “if the government decided it would never hire anyone who looked at WikiLeaks, it wouldn’t have any recruits!” Kurtzer said he believes that federal agencies will formally or informally pardon recruits who have accessed news reports on classified information or have had incidental access to leaked documents (for example, stumbling upon a WikiLeaks document transposed on a different website). “When you apply for a clearance, they will ask you whether you have accessed WikiLeaks. But their question really is ‘Have you affirmatively accessed WikiLeaks?’”
Wilson School professor Barton Gellman, who currently teaches WWS 465: Secrecy, Accountability and the National Security State has a more generous outlook. He agrees that it is safe to read secondary documents related to WikiLeaks, but after informally consulting White House and intelligence officials, Gellman has concluded that it is also safe to read WikiLeaks documents on Blackboard. “Even still,” he explained, “it feels unfair to compel a student to assume an uncertain burden, however slight.”
In the absence of an official University regulation on this matter, I reached out to Wilson School Dean Christina Paxson for her opinion. While clarifying that she could not comment on behalf of the University administration, Paxson explained that “students who are concerned that reading WikiLeaks cables could compromise their career prospects should not be compelled to do so.” She explained that not taking a stance on WikiLeaks gives the administration the latitude it needs to simultaneously protect students’ academic freedom and defend the relative few for whom WikiLeaks may pose a risk.
But here, many disagree. Do students have the right to self-censor?
This semester, Gellman changed his syllabus to accommodate students who did not want to read WikiLeaks cables. That being said, he has not yet decided whether he will require WikiLeaks in future classes: “There are courses, including mine, that probably should not be taught without classified-but-public materials on the syllabus. There are certainly research subjects that should not be undertaken without them. I would not agree, for example, to supervise a thesis on recent U.S. combat operations if the student were unwilling to read the Iraq and Afghanistan ‘War Logs.’ ” But even in situations where classified information is valuable but not necessary, Gellman questions whether we should be “comfortable with avoiding trouble on the grounds that we can do a creditable job on a given subject without WikiLeaks.”
Motivated by principles of academic integrity and veracity, University professors are increasingly requiring that students consult WikiLeaks documents for class assignments and to check the accuracy of their research — effectively penalizing self-censorship. They are confronted with quiet opposition from concerned students like Samantha. She argues that Princeton should instruct teachers not to design classes where reading primary source classified materials is mandatory unless explicitly stated in the course description. Others argue that the University should provide students more direct access to the University’s Legal Counsel, which is more adept to answer specific questions regarding classified information. Helping students make informed decisions is important. The University has been lagging behind in this respect.
Kurtzer echoes this concern. “Ideally,” he explained, “the University should make clear that students who use WikiLeaks do so at their own risk, and those who don’t will not be disadvantaged in any way — either in terms of grades or class selection.” He recommended instituting a policy in which students could decide whether to use classified documents and disclose their decisions in a foreword to their academic work, perhaps as an addendum to the Honor Code. The administration should communicate to professors that students should not be penalized for the decision not to use WikiLeaks, and professors should grade accordingly.
“Even if the government is derelict in its responsibility to have a good policy [on WikiLeaks use], the University can’t also be derelict — it has to find a way to protect students who are in this uncertain position,” Kurtzer said.
Andrea de Sa is a Wilson School major from Newark, N.J. She can be reached at andreade @princeton.edu.