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Opinion Voice of America jumps through tech hoops to report on WikiLeaks docs

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, in 2012. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)

Conventional news organizations follow a simple protocol in pursuing this week’s WikiLeaks dump of alleged CIA documents about tools to hack into computers, smartphones and the like. Just open up the documents, read them, consult with experts and perhaps write up an article or two.

That process doesn’t proceed quite as smoothly at the Voice of America (VOA), the government-funded news outlet that launched in 1942 “to combat Nazi propaganda with accurate and unbiased news and information.” Journalists at VOA work on government computers, an arrangement that creates some problems when viewing classified information, whether or not that classified information has been leaked to the whole world. “Even if classified documents are leaked and thus in the public domain, they have not yet been declassified. Because we’re a federal agency, these laws and rules [apply] to us,” wrote VOA Director Amanda Bennett in a Wednesday memo to VOA staffers.

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The upshot? “We cannot, using agency computers, examine these leaked documents or reproduce them on our web sites,” wrote Bennett.

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Bennett says that the problem dates back to 2010, when WikiLeaks released an enormous amount of classified U.S. government cables and correspondence. At the time, VOA, like the rest of the government, received an OMB directive that it couldn’t use its computer system to mine the documents. “If we use the same computer systems, we’re subject to the same laws as the rest of the federal government,” says Bennett.

So the organization bootstrapped a workaround — with advice from the Obama Justice Department and other agencies — that involved using computers that weren’t connected to the federal network, just for the purpose of checking out the WikiLeaks material. Last night, Bennett & Co. repeated the operation, asking for the requisite technology to perform the computer isolation. Though the computers get their connection from an external WiFi hotspot, they are lodged in the VOA newsroom.

VOA has covered the latest WikiLeaks documents in this article and has also run wire pieces.

“The presumption is, ‘Let’s obey the law’ and ‘Let’s also figure out how to get the job done,'” says Bennett.