Without a trace: WikiLeaks as unperson

This week the leak site Cryptome.org posted ‘NARA Leaks Wikileaks Citations’, explaining that if you do a collection search at http://research.archives.gov/ – the US National Archives and Records Administration’s primary search tool – using the word ‘WikiLeaks’ the results are blocked. However the filter does not catch cases where ‘Wiki’ and ‘Leaks’ are separated, as occurs in some documents: http://research.archives.gov/search?expression=wiki+leak&pg_src=brief&data-source=archives-gov – so here you can see the kinds of records that are otherwise being censored. Twitter user @AlecMuffett later discovered that wildcards such as “?ikileaks” and “wiki?eaks” retrieve a few more documents with the word “WikiLeaks” in them.

The irony of NARA proudly listing the Bill of Rights as one of their most requested records on the same search page that is blocking access to this public information could not be lost on many. In that it is about denying the people access to evidence because of a threat to power, this news is just another facet of the kind of corruption of the archival trace that I posted about last week in relation to the (anti) recordkeeping directions in the US Military’s detainee policies, in Without a trace: Policies of unaccountability.

We know that the US Government has had a long standing policy that Federal employees not be allowed to access the Wikileaks website, but for the Archives to censor information containing references to a publishing organisation that is politically unpopular via its public access services is a serious business. I have written to a couple of contacts in the US to see if I can find out more.

Update Nov 4: Kevin Gosztola has written a piece on this matter nicely rounding up the various manifestations of the ‘futile panic response’ by the US Government to WikiLeaks, including the Library of Congress’ blocking of their content in its reading rooms, and the State Department’s sacking of Peter Van Buren after he included a link to a Wikileaks document on his personal blog.

Update Nov 6: An archivist friend in the US in an email conversation on this matter with me this week remarked:

To be honest NARA will never lead on these issue and once the “threat to US” flag is raised they (like most) will crumble or just defer to the judgments of the Justice Department, Executive Office of the President or various intelligence agencies.
A parallel instance was the “secret” removal of records that were in the open stacks, discovered by researcher Matthew Aid. Which led to an internal NARA IG report which found that the removals were mostly unnecessary – BUT this only came to light once Aid raised their removal publicly- if left to their own devices NARA “secretly” and with no notice removed “open” documents due to “security” concerns after 9/11.

Update Nov 6 (2): Twitter user @m_cetera reports that the blocking of results in searches using Wikileaks has ceased. If indeed they have consciously removed this ‘banned’ word, then bravo to NARA. If only the rest of the US Govt could show as much sense and lift the banning of access to Wikileaks or Wikileaks related content to Federal personnel.

Update Nov 7: Overnight NARA posted to their blog on this matter: ‘Looking for Wikileaks?’, stating: ‘The banned URL message was an error’, and that the search will now return over two dozen results of the digitised and open access records available on their site. Interestingly, they also take the opportunity to remind us that they would not provide access to actual WikiLeaks documents owing to the fact that they remain classified. This despite the fact that these records have been in the public domain for two years.

This is of course a whole of US Government government directive not to provide access to or even link to the Wikileaks archive, and one that it would be extraordinary for NARA not to follow, however it does show up in sharp relief the difference between the world of default secrecy and political influence that governs public archives and alternatives like WikiLeaks. Particularly since we know following the release in particular of Cablegate how unnecessary many of the secret classifications on these records are.

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About Cassie Findlay

Digital archivist and recordkeeping professional, co-founder of the Recordkeeping Roundtable. @CassPF on Twitter.
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