[THS] Can the U.S. Prevent Future WikiLeaks Document Releases?
The Harder Stuff in news and commentary
ths at psalience.org
Wed Dec 8 13:55:38 CET 2010
Can the U.S. Prevent Future WikiLeaks Document Releases?
One obvious way is to use the classified label more sparingly, according to one expert
By Larry Greenemeier November 30, 2010
With the release of more than 250,000 diplomatic documents earlier this week,
WikiLeaks shifted its attention from the U.S. military to the country's diplomats,
spilling classified messages that the government obviously did not care to share with
the public. The U.S. stance is that WikiLeaks is taking advantage of vulnerabilities
caused by increased intra-governmental agency data sharing mandated in the wake
of the 9/11 attacks and that this breach will cause significant damage to national
Others see WikiLeaks's mission as an unfocused assault on government secrecy,
which may be overused but still serves a purpose. Rather than concentrating on
whistleblowing, assessing historical truth or promoting peace, WikiLeaks instead
publishes "a vast potpourri of recordsdazzling, revelatory, true, questionable,
embarrassing, or routinewhose only common feature is that they are classified or
otherwise restricted," blogged Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the
Federation of American Scientists, on Monday.
Aftergood's Secrecy News blog is technically in the same business as
WikiLeakspublishing official documents of public policy value that are somehow
restricted or otherwise hard to find. Aftergood makes the distinction, however, that
his blog publishes information not because it is restricted but rather because it has
value to the public. The scope of government secrecy in the U.S., not to mention
other countries, has exceeded rational boundaries, he acknowledges. Still, he adds,
disabling secrecy in the name of transparency would be a sensible goal only "if it
were true that all secrecy is wrong."
WikiLeaks has certainly succeeded in rousing the U.S. government. On August 12,
2010, Defense Secretary Robert Gates commissioned two reviews to determine what
policy, procedural and technological shortfalls contributed to unauthorized disclosure
to the WikiLeaks Web site. The results led to a number of recommendations for
tightening access to documents, including "disabling all write capability to removable
media on DoD classified computers, as a temporary technical solution to mitigate the
future risks of personnel moving classified data to unclassified systems," according to
a Defense Department memo. The Defense Department claims that 60 percent of its
Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet) is now equipped with a host-
based security system (HBSS) that can monitor unusual data access or usage. The
department also claims to be accelerating HBSS deployment to the rest of its SIPRNet
Scientific American asked Aftergood for his thoughts on how so much sensitive
diplomatic information could be leaked and what the U.S. government might do to
prevent future leaks.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
How was someone able to get so many documents? Does this have anything to do
with documents on the Department of Defense and the Department of State being
from a single SIPRNet server?
This is a subject of continuing investigation. But it appears that all of the documents
in question were available via SIPRNet and could be downloaded more or less at will.
The Defense Department has made available its technical and policy response up to
How does this latest episode differ from past leaks in pre-Web days, such as the
Pentagon Papers back in 1971?
Certainly the technology makes it infinitely easier to capture the documents, to
transfer them and to publish them for a worldwide audience.
How much does this latest leak hurt national security?
It's unclear and hard to quantify. But it seems likely that foreign interlocutors will now
think twice about communicating information to U.S. diplomats, and U.S. diplomats
now think twice about recording such information in written form. That is not good
Does the government have a legitimate need for secrets? Is there such a thing as too
much transparency in the public sector?
Certainly there is such a thing as legitimate secrecy. It extends to the protection of
advanced military technologies, military operations, intelligence sources and
Reports say that the diplomats used "cables." Does this term refer to any electronic
communication from overseas, or does it refer to an outdated mode of
communication via telegram?
It is an anachronistic term that is nevertheless still used to refer to a diplomatic
On November 28, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a
memo (pdf) calling for each agency that handles classified information to establish a
security assessment team to ensure that users do not have broader access than
necessary and to limit the use of removable media. What other changes do you
foresee? What would you recommend?
A review of security procedures in light of recent events is already underway and may
lead to new restrictions on access or distribution of classified records. My hope is that
a critical review of the classification system in order to reduce or eliminate
unnecessary secrecy will be part of the government's response.
Source: Scientific American
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