Keeping Secrets the American Way

Jan. 1, 2011

The Defense Department seemed to do little when WikiLeaks indiscriminately dumped thousands of classified intelligence reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, and a quarter-million confidential cables from US embassies worldwide, into the public domain.

The response? The Pentagon focused on repairing the faulty procedures that allowed the massive intelligence breach to occur in the first place.

DOD is turning off the ability to copy data from classified networks onto removable storage devices such as CDs or flash drives. Two people will be required to download classified data, to stymie lone actors. The department is also stepping up the automated monitoring of its classified networks and putting procedures in place to detect suspicious behavior.

The net result of these changes, said a DOD spokesman, is that “it is now much more difficult for a determined actor to get access to and move information outside of authorized channels.”

One of the key findings after the 9/11 terror attacks was that various intelligence agencies needlessly hindered themselves by not sharing information. The government made a concerted effort to break down unnecessary restrictions on sharing intelligence, so that people such as lower-level battlefield commanders would have access to the information they needed to perform their jobs and protect their troops.

“Obviously that aperture went too wide,” said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. “There’s no reason for a young officer at a forward operating post in Afghanistan to get [State Department] cables having to do with the START negotiations.” Nor, for that matter, was there any need for a young enlisted soldier in Iraq to have access to any classified information his heart desired.

The government is therefore also reviewing who needs access to what information, to control access even among those with security clearances.

Taken together, these safeguards would likely have prevented the original data theft. An Army private, Bradley Manning, is in custody. He is suspected of copying the vast troves of classified data onto re-recordable CDs while stationed in Baghdad. He allegedly walked out with the discs and later fed the electronic documents to WikiLeaks.

The release of the documents has been damaging, and certainly jeopardized the lives of intelligence sources in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the revelations have not been nearly as damaging to the US as some, including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, clearly hoped.

WikiLeaks released an edited video of an Apache helicopter operation that tragically killed two Reuters journalists and other noncombatants under the title “Collateral Murder.” It has revealed the names of secret foreign sources, and personal information such as Social Security numbers of troops.

“Disabling secrecy in the name of transparency would be a sensible goal—if it were true that all secrecy were wrong,” wrote the Federation of American Scientists’ Steven Aftergood, a longtime critic of unnecessary government secrecy and author of the Secrecy News blog. “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.”

When the State Department refused to cooperate with the WikiLeaks cabal and tell it what “specific names” should not be released, Assange said State’s refusal to cooperate “leads me to conclude that the supposed risks are entirely fanciful and [the government is] instead concerned to suppress evidence of human rights abuse and other criminal behavior.”

But the “revelations” in the releases have largely confirmed what was already known. The battles in Iraq and Afghanistan are confusing, chaotic, often terrifying, and US troops are constantly called on to make split-second life or death decisions with imperfect information. No surprise there.

In many cases, the “revelations” cast the US in a positive light. Uniformed troops are shown persevering under difficult conditions, while civilian diplomats are seen to generally behave professionally, and with American interests in mind.

Most importantly, as Gates noted, there is a “lack of any significant difference between what the US government says publicly and what these things show privately.” The conspiracy theorists must be disappointed, and a stronger reaction may not be necessary.

Consider what a possible stronger response might look like:

The US could place Assange’s associates and family members under house arrest. The government might ban the media from referencing or quoting the stolen documents. It could shut down independent websites and jam news channels that mentioned Assange without condemning him.

The above sounds like an absurd overreaction, but is based in reality. It is, in fact, exactly how the Chinese government responded when faced with a situation it found similarly embarrassing last month: when Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Liu is one year into an 11-year prison sentence for advocating democracy. China’s government barred relatives and supporters from traveling to Norway for the Nobel ceremony, placing many of them under house arrest. The government blocked access to the independent websites and news channels, such as CNN and the BBC, which showed the event. China’s “Great Internet Firewall” went so far as to temporarily shut down blogs that mentioned an “empty chair”—a reference to the fact that Liu’s chair at the awards ceremony sat empty.

If that is what authoritarian information control looks like, we’ll take the American way.

Technical and procedural changes may seem akin to shutting the barn door after the horse has fled, but in reality, the Pentagon has had the appropriate reaction. Though damaging, the scandal has shown that the US has little to hide. Authoritarian regimes (including WikiLeaks itself) are the ones having the most to fear from disclosures.