With better sharing of data comes danger
Monday, November 29, 2010; 12:08 AM
The release of a huge tranche of U.S. diplomatic cables has laid bare the primary risk associated with the U.S. government's attempt to encourage better information-sharing: Someone is bound to leak.
The U.S. intelligence community came under heavy criticism after Sept. 11, 2001, for having failed to share data that could have prevented the attacks that day. In response, officials from across the government sought to make it easier for various agencies to share sensitive information - effectively giving more analysts wider access to government secrets.
But on Sunday, the Web site WikiLeaks, which had previously released sensitive U.S. documents about the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq, once again proved that there's a downside to better information-sharing.
"One of the consequences [of 9/11] is you gave a lot of people access to the dots," said Jeffrey H. Smith, a former CIA general counsel. "At least one of the dots, apparently, was a bad apple."
While WikiLeaks has not identified the source of the more than 250,000 cables, suspicions have centered on an Army private, Bradley Manning, 23, who was also the suspected source of the military intelligence documents from Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a series of chats with an online companion, Manning said this spring that "*someone* i know" - apparently a coy self-reference - had gained access to 260,000 State Department cables from embassies and consulates around the world "explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail."
"Hilary Clinton [sic], and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and finds an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format to the public," he said, according to logs of the chats given to The Washington Post.
Manning's attorney, David Coombs, declined to comment Sunday but has previously said he has no knowledge of whether his client leaked documents.
In recent weeks, senior administration officials have warned that the WikiLeaks disclosures could affect the balance of weighing the "need to know" versus the need to protect sensitive material, sources and methods.
The director of U.S. national intelligence, James Clapper, has said he believes the WikiLeaks releases will have a "chilling effect" on information-sharing.
"We have to do a much better job of auditing what is going on on any [intelligence community] computer," he said this month. "And so if somebody's downloading a half-million documents . . . we find out about it contemporaneously, not after the fact."
To prevent further breaches, the Pentagon announced Sunday it had ordered the disabling of a feature on its classified computer systems that allows material to be copied onto thumb drives or other removable devices.