WikiLeaks scandal raises many questions

Why was such a huge cache of classified documents so accessible?

If you are in the defense or intelligence community, it's unlikely you have not read about the WikiLeaks scandal. The website is planning on posting another massive set of classified documents that were leaked in 2010.

Experts say the impending release of more than 2 million highly sensitive documents could be embarrassing to members of foreign governments because the information exposes their less-than-noble actions. "These revelations are harmful to the United States and our interests,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.

These documents are reported to contain communications about ties with nations such as Italy, Russia, Denmark, Norway, Turkey and Israel. U.S. diplomats have briefed allies of the United States about the expected release of classified U.S. files by WikiLeaks. The Italian government has already said that if WikiLeaks publishes these classified reports on U.S. foreign relations, the information could harm Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's reputation.

In addition, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv has notified the Prime Minister's Office that some WikiLeaks diplomatic cables might contain information about Israel/U.S. relations. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom's government has issued defense advisory notices to U.K. news outlets in a proactive measure to calm the fallout from the upcoming WikiLeaks release.

Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old intelligence analyst, is suspected to be behind the leak. Manning had a top-secret/sensitive compartmentalized information clearance that gave him access to sensitive information about the Iraq war. Some in the intelligence and military communities are calling the leak an act of treason. The Army is considering whether Manning should face the military equivalent of a trial over the charges. Many believe the precedent this leak presents calls for the harshest sentence for Manning: death.

However, the big question goes unanswered. Why was such a huge cache of classified documents completely accessible, and why could an intelligence analyst copy and save those documents to a CD? It would seem that security controls should have detected that someone was copying such a massive number of documents and saving them to portable storage media. In addition, why didn't the systems automatically encrypt the data anytime the files were stored or replicated? Further compartmentalization should be done to reduce the size of data stores that analysts have access to, limiting access to only their specific areas of responsibility.

It appears the U.S. military has learned a valuable and expensive lesson from all this. Insiders say the embarrassment caused by this incident has already put in motion several projects to ensure an event like this cannot happen again. They are quick to point to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency‘s September Cyber Insider Threat program announcement. Just as a point of reference, experts say insiders are directly or indirectly involved in more than 80 percent of all data breaches. DARPA said the goal of the Cyber Insider Threat program "will be to greatly increase the accuracy, rate and speed with which insider threats are detected and impede the ability of adversaries to operate undetected within government and military interest network.”

The open and frank discussions in the cables published on WikiLeaks will without a doubt have negative implications for U.S. foreign relations. How great the effect will be is still unknown. But given that the United States is engaged in two theaters of operations and an untold number of covert operations around the world with the assistance of our allies, this could not occur at a worse time. The State Department has taken an active  approach to dealing with the fallout that will result from the WikiLeaks releases. In addition, it reportedly disconnected Secret IP Router Network access from its networks. SIPRNet is the Defense Department’s largest network for the exchange of classified information and messages.

Only with the passage of time will we truly know the damage that has been done to our foreign relations by this cyber incident. However, one question remains: What else is to come?

About the Author

Kevin Coleman is a senior fellow with the Technolytics Institute, former chief strategist at Netscape, and an adviser on cyber warfare and security. He is also the author of "Cyber Commander's Handbook." He can be reached by e-mail at: [email protected]

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