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Can The U.S. Government Prevent Another WikiLeak?

Olga Khazan |
November 29, 2010 | 8:10 p.m. PST

Senior Editor

Can the U.S. government prevent truth from outing itself?
Can the U.S. government prevent truth from outing itself?

The torrent of secret diplomatic cables published by online whistleblower WikiLeaks wasn't handed over by some expert hacker or CIA turncoat. It was likely done by a relatively low-level Army analyst named Bradley Manning, who allegedly downloaded thousands of State Department documents from the government's private network onto blank CD's while lip-syncing to Lady Gaga's "Telephone."

Whether Manning actually brought about the "worldwide anarchy in CSV format" that he sought remains to be seen, but he has at least brought the State Department to its knees, leaving them begging and then demanding that WikiLeaks not release the data.

Regardless of whether history views Cablegate as a victory for open government or a permanent crippling of U.S. foreign policy, the U.S. government has a clear interest in preventing anything like it from happening ever again.

The Pentagon has already announced several procedural changes, including disabling the copying of data to portable devices and limiting the amount of data that can be transferred to unclassified computers.

But why wasn't that done sooner? Furthermore, why do secret government computers have CD drives in the first place? (CDs are quickly going the way of the floppy disk, as nearly all of their core functions - storage, data transfer and software launch - can be done electronically anyway.)

Wired writer Noah Schachtman agrees. "The computers attached to that top secret network aren't supposed to have CD drives," he said. "They're supposed to have no drives so you can't take any information off of them."

What's more, WikiLeaks, the virtual repository for these and other illicit government secrets, has seemingly mastered the art of keeping information under wraps until they are ready to publish it. A New Yorker article reports that the site uses servers maintained by "exceptionally secretive engineers," uses encrypted chats to communicate with reporters, sends fake submissions in order to obscure real documents and sends information through encrypted "virtual tunnels." If Manning had tried to sabotage Wikileaks, no doubt he would have found himself in some sort of cyber ninja choke-hold.

Why doesn't the U.S. government beat WikiLeaks at their own game and use encrypted chats or e-mails to communicate instead of using cables (essentially glorified e-mails) that are simply classified as "secret"?

But encryption may not be the only answer after all, according to some security analysts. The Harvard Business Review's Andrew McAfee thinks far too many people are given high-level security clearances, which increases the risk of security breaches.

"The problem here might be that we're giving high-level security clearances to individuals who shouldn't have them, or not watching those already cleared carefully enough to detect when something goes wrong with them. Manning appears to have been a troubled person, and it's not clear how he got a Top Secret clearance, which comes only after lots of background checking."

But the U.S. government transfers so much data that the sheer volume of documents alone requires more personnel to handle them all, thus feeding an endless "national-security bloat," as some call it

"The reform that may be needed more urgently than any other is a careful reduction in the size of the secrecy system. When less information is kept secret, it will become easier to keep it secure," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

Prior to the WikiLeaks fiasco, the U.S. government was making a push to classify fewer documents as secret, said National Security Network director Heather Hurlburt. But they probably won't be doing that for much longer, since their overtures at open government have resulted in a total airing of diplomatic dirty laundry.

"This will reverse that, since a top-secret classification would have kept any of these documents off the shared network from which they were allegedly downloaded by a very junior soldier."

Another possibility is that the government will recoil from the releases by phasing out diplomatic cables altogether, letting people get back to good, old-fashioned conversation to share their secrets. Anne Applebaum of Slate writes:

"Diplomatic cables will presumably now go the way of snail mail: Oral communication will replace writing, as even off-the-record chats now have to take place outdoors, in the presence of heavy traffic, just in case anyone is listening."

That should work - unless someone thinks to bring a pocket tape recorder.



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