Purdue University Erases Video Of NSA Surveillance Speech To Obey Government Censorship Rules

Pulitzer-winning journalist Barton Gellman said Purdue "cannot lightly wear the shackles" of a defense contractor.
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Purdue University erased a video of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barton Gellman's campus address on Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency because his presentation included classified government documents, Gellman said.

Gellman, a former Washington Post reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Edward Snowden and the NSA's mass surveillance programs, gave a keynote speech Sept. 24 at Purdue's technology conference, "Dawn or Doom." His talk was live-streamed and organizers promised to provide a permanent link to the video on the school website after the talk, Gellman said. But the school, located in Lafayette, Indiana, never provided the link, Gellman wrote in a piece posted on the website of the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

"It turns out that Purdue has wiped all copies of my video and slides from university servers, on grounds that I displayed classified documents briefly on screen," Gellman wrote. He said he was told that the university at one point pondered destroying the projector he borrowed as well.

Purdue confirmed it had erased the video of Gellman's speech in a statement to the Lafayette Journal & Courier.

Gellman was one of three journalists that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden entrusted with his files in 2013, shortly before Snowden blew the whistle on the spy agency's mammoth global mass surveillance program. After Snowden last week tweeted a link to Gellman's post about the missing Purdue video, the Century Foundation website went down, apparently unable to handle traffic generated by Snowden's 1.47 million Twitter followers.

According to the Purdue Exponent, the independent student newspaper, a conference attendee noticed Gellman's display of classified documents and asked if they had been declassified since their leak. Gellman said they hadn't, the Exponent reported.

Purdue does research funded by the Department of Defense and has what is known as "facility security clearance," which allows certain staff and faculty to access classified government documents, according to the Lafayette Journal & Courier.

The attendee who inquired about the classified documents reported the matter to the university research information assurance officer (a position required by the school's special clearance), who then consulted with a representative from the Defense Security Service, a branch of the Defense Department, and declared the video must be destroyed.

Gerry McCartney, Purdue's vice president for information technology, confirmed to the Exponent that video of Gellman's speech had been deleted. He said the university was merely complying with government standards regarding the dissemination of leaked, classified information.

Gellman has updated his blog post to say that a member of the Purdue communications team told him the video had been deleted after his initial post, unbeknownst to conference organizers, "in an overreaction while attempting to comply with regulations."

The destruction of a speech on government surveillance to comply with government secrecy rules may be unexpected at Purdue, which in May became the first public university to adopt a free speech policy condemning the suppression of any idea no matter how "offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed" it may be.

Gellman also expressed surprise that a university -- a traditional bastion of American protest and progressivism -- would take this action:

"This kind of zeal is commonplace in the military and intelligence services. They have periodically forbidden personnel — and even their families — to visit mainstream sites such as the Washington Post and the New York Times for fear of exposure to documents from Snowden or Wikileaks.

But universities are not secret agencies. 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."

The three slides in question took up about five minutes of Gellman's 90-minute presentation, he said. Gellmen provided the slides to The Lafayette Journal & Courier, which reported that they identified NSA programs that collect intercepted communications as well as information taken directly from the servers of major Internet companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft.

It's unclear whether the documents Gellman presented should have been classified in the first place. Secretary of State John Kerry told The Huffington Post in an interview in September that the government classifies too much information. "People just stamp it on quickly because it's a way to sort of be correct if anybody had a judgment that somehow they had been wrong about whether it should be classified or not," Kerry said.

State Department spokesman John Kirby told The Washington Post in September that "classification is not always a black-and-white, binary judgment. Responsible people can draw different conclusions."

Gellman said Purdue representatives have told him they would try to "recover" the video of his speech.

"The university finds itself 'sanitizing' a conference that has nothing to do with any government contract," Gellman wrote. "Where does it stop? Suppose a professor wants to teach a network security course, or a student wants to write a foreign policy paper, that draws on the rich public record made available by Snowden and Chelsea Manning? Those cases will be hard to distinguish from mine."

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