WikiLeaks Secrecy Breach May Roll Back Data Sharing

The U.S. government is rolling back years of efforts to internally share information on terrorists and other threats, a result that runs counter to founder Julian Assange’s stated goal of making government more open.

The July WikiLeaks release of 75,000 records from the Afghan War, October’s leak of 400,000 Army field reports from Iraq and this week’s deluge of 250,000 cables from U.S. embassies around the world have prompted the Pentagon and the State Department to cut back access. White House Budget Director Jacob Lew has ordered all agencies to review security for classified data.

The commission that studied the intelligence failures preceding the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and the Pentagon said the failure to share critical information among government agencies was partly to blame. The 9/11 Commission called for government agencies to replace their “need-to-know” strictures with a “need-to-share” philosophy to raise their odds of piecing together evidence that would prevent attacks.

“Obviously that aperture went too wide,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday. “There’s no reason for a young officer at a forward operating post in Afghanistan to get cables having to do with” Russian nuclear arms negotiations, he said as an example.

Spreading confidential information widely across the government increases the chance of leaks. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday said WikiLeaks’ disclosure of sensitive diplomatic cables could hurt negotiations and in some cases endanger individuals.

Balancing Needs

The State Department has tightened up the way those documents will be shared in the future. Even people who called for greater sharing following the Sept. 11 attacks say it was time for a correction.

“We understood after 9/11 we didn’t share enough,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said today on CNN’s “American Morning” program. “Now we understand we have to balance the need to share with the need to know.”

“I think it’s going to swing back,” said Richard Fontaine, a former Senate Armed Services Committee staff member who helped draft legislation implementing the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations. “The cost of this and the Afghanistan and Iraq leaks seriously outweighs the benefits of having this kind of information” shared so broadly, Fontaine said.

The latest release from WikiLeaks includes cables from 274 U.S. embassies, including confidential assessments of foreign leaders such as German President Angela Merkel and sensitive conversations about strategy on Iran, China or Russia.

More Restrictions

“There’s going to be more restrictions and greater compartmentalization of information,” said Fontaine, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

The 9/11 Commission criticized just such restrictions. Its 2004 report cited the case of a plotter who went undetected because information was “distributed, but in a compartmented channel.” The panel stressed the “importance of intelligence analysis that can draw on all relevant sources of information.”

The military and the State Department are working with the Justice Department to investigate the leaks. U.S. Army intelligence specialist Bradley Manning, who served as an analyst in Iraq, was arrested in June at age 22 on suspicion of illegally releasing classified information. Officials haven’t revealed which contents he is suspected of leaking.

Manning, a private first-class, had said in an online chat in May that the documents he downloaded included “260,000 State Department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world,” the New York Times reported this week.

‘Serious Question’

“Why he was able to get from his area of operation all across the government raises a serious question about do we have appropriate compartmentalization,” former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, co-founder and managing principal of the Chertoff Group in Washington, said in an interview yesterday.

The State Department information leaked this week was kept on a computer network called SIPRNet, for Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, the Defense Department’s largest command-and-control data network, according to its website.

The leak undermines the ability of diplomats to gather the kind of information needed to make valid judgments on foreign policy, said former Clinton administration Defense Secretary William Cohen.

Informed Decisions

“It is imperative that we have candid reporting from those who are in the field working with their counterparts in order to inform our decision-making back here in Washington,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters at the State Department on Nov. 29 after a week of phone calls and meetings to do damage-control with her counterparts worldwide.

“In addition to endangering particular individuals, disclosures like these tear at the fabric of the proper function of responsible government,” Clinton said before leaving on a trip to Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. Her schedule includes a conference where she’ll meet with Arab leaders whose countries were the subject of some of the leaked cables.

Among the steps the Pentagon has taken is equipping the system to monitor unusual data usage, Gates said. About 60 percent of SIPRNet is monitored by the system now, and the defense chief said he’s ordered the rest of the work be accelerated.

‘Assault on Secrecy’

“The WikiLeaks project seems to be, more than anything else, an assault on secrecy,” Steven Aftergood, an analyst at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, wrote in his blog on secrecy. “But if there is a legitimate role for secrecy in military operations, in intelligence gathering or in diplomatic negotiations -- as seems self-evident -- then a different approach is called for.”

Mark Stephens, a London attorney for Assange, didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment, and a chat website for contacting WikiLeaks staff wasn’t working. Stephens regularly represents several media organizations, including Bloomberg News.

Former Senator Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat and a member of the 9/11 Commission, said he thinks Clinton and Gates will protect against over-correcting and restricting information-sharing too much. The response after the Sept. 11 attacks was probably “in excess of what was necessary.”

“We made three or four rather simple mistakes, with devastating consequences,” Kerrey said in a telephone interview from his office as president of the New School university in New York. “All the mistakes that were made were easy to correct.”

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