- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2010


The State Department’s knee-jerk response to the WikiLeaks document dump was to cut its link to the Defense Department’s secret communications network. This “solution” could lead to the very problems that facilitated the intelligence failures of the 1990s.

In the years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America, information sharing between government agencies became increasingly difficult. Compartmentalization was caused by a variety of factors, including incompatible information systems, bureaucratic instincts to control information, and legal and policy determinations that too much information sharing could lead to supposed rights violations. Critical information disconnects between - and even within - agencies was later isolated as one of the reasons why the Sept. 11 terror attacks were not broken up. The government had many pieces of the puzzle, but they were kept in separate stovepipes.

Since then, agencies sought new and better ways to share information safely. Classified databases such as Harmony (much of which has been declassified), the State Department’s Net-Centric Diplomacy database and others made interagency coordination easier and gave analysts a more comprehensive picture of the threats they were assessing. This information was distributed on parallel networks based on security classification, with the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network or SIPRNet being the avenue for transmitting information at the “secret” level.

The problem is not the technology that enables information sharing but the human factor. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning - the suspected source of the WikiLeaks documents - was the weak link in the system, a disillusioned, emotionally volatile young man who chose to express his disagreements with U.S. war policy through criminal activity. He may not be alone. There are 854,000 persons with top-secret clearances both in and out of government, and approximately 3 million cleared to the secret level. Active government security clearances are required credentials in some career fields, and it’s common for people to seek government employment for the purpose of getting a high-level clearance and then selling their services to the private sector. The process for getting cleared to the secret level often involves only a simple criminal background check. Given the vast numbers of people with varying levels of access to highly sensitive information, the question is not how the WikiLeaks incident happened but why it doesn’t happen more often.

Going back to the old stovepipes would create more problems than it would solve. It wouldn’t end the potential for leaks but would re-create the conditions that made interagency coordination difficult in the 1990s. A more balanced long-term approach would be to find ways to maintain information sharing but make it less exportable. This is why former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld kept a typewriter handy for his most sensitive communiques, which could be copied and distributed to a select list but couldn’t be forwarded globally with a single push of a button. After the WikiLeaks dump of Afghan war documents in July, the Defense Department blocked downloads to removable media from classified systems, and it has taken other measures to detect misuse of classified networks. The government also might review the reasons for the explosion in security clearances and seek ways to pare them down to a more manageable level.

Damaging leaks of classified information will always be possible, such as when the New York Times published top-secret Iraq war plans on July 5, 2002, eight months before the invasion took place. In that case, a single PowerPoint briefing leaked by military officers with a grudge to settle made front-page news. The only way to stop all classified information leaks would be to do away with classification.

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