Are These Slides Classified?

Purdue expunges presentation on Edward Snowden because leaked information on three slides is still technically classified.

October 8, 2015

You cannot watch Barton Gellman’s conference presentation about the National Security Agency and Edward Snowden. Purdue University deleted the video.

Gellman gave the keynote presentation at the university’s "Dawn or Doom" colloquium in September. He was promised a link to video of the presentation afterward, but was subsequently told that, on the advice of its lawyers, Purdue was unable to publish the video at all.

What happened? In a blog post for the Century Foundation, Gellman explains: three of the slides he used during his 90-minute talk contained classified information. It's leaked information that lives on the Internet and has been viewed by millions of people, but it is classified nonetheless.

Purdue has a “facility security clearance,” Gellman says, which allows the university to perform classified research for the government, but also “requires ‘sanitization, physical removal or destruction’ of classified information discovered on unauthorized media” -- like a keynote video on a college server.

Several attendees asked specifically whether some of the information presented was classified in a question-and-answer session after the talk. “We have a number of ‘junior security rangers’ on faculty and staff who tend to be ‘by the book.’ Unfortunately, once noted, that is something that cannot be unnoted,” Purdue computer science professor Eugene Spafford told Gellman afterward.

Sure enough, someone filed a “breach report” with the university’s research information assurance officer, who brought the issue to the attention of the Defense Security Service, a Pentagon agency that oversees nongovernment organizations working with classified material.

“Universities are not secret agencies,” Gellman writes. “They cannot lightly wear the shackles of a National Industrial Security Program, as Purdue agreed to do. The values at their core, in principle and often in practice, are open inquiry and expression …. Purdue has compromised its own independence and that of its students and faculty. It set an unhappy precedent, even if the people responsible thought they were merely following routine procedures.”

“We don't view this episode as any sort of compromise of Purdue's commitment to free and open inquiry,” Steve Schultz, Purdue's legal counsel, said in a statement emailed to Inside Higher Ed. “It was the university's desire to raise awareness of Mr. Gellman's area of expertise that brought him to campus in the first place. When the classified nature of some material was confirmed, Purdue's security officer made a judgment call, based on a reading of regulations, that we shouldn't disseminate it. Purdue's DSS industrial security representative confirmed the propriety of this assessment. In the course of communicating the decision to the technical team, the entire speech was removed from the website. We have acknowledged that perhaps a better way to comply with the law would have been to block only the classified information in question. But we don't make the laws; we only do our best to follow them.”


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