This may be the biggest actual scandal of the Wikileaks document dump. So far, the big headlines have gone to such surprising factoids as the State Department conducting intelligence at the UN, the Obama administration playing Monty Hall to get countries like Slovenia to take terrorists from Gitmo (and getting a big zonker for its efforts), and the stunning news that China may have refused to block shipments of missile technology to its client state Iran a few years ago. What’s next, a diplomatic cable underscoring just how wet water can be?
No, the most troubling part of the Wikileaks story is how American diplomatic and military security can be so easily compromised by … Lady Gaga?
An innocuous-looking memory stick, no longer than a couple of fingernails, came into the hands of a Guardian reporter earlier this year. The device is so small it will hang easily on a keyring. But its contents will send shockwaves through the world’s chancelleries and deliver what one official described as “an epic blow” to US diplomacy.
The 1.6 gigabytes of text files on the memory stick ran to millions of words: the contents of more than 250,000 leaked state department cables, sent from, or to, US embassies around the world. …
The US military believes it knows where the leak originated. A soldier, Bradley Manning, 22, has been held in solitary confinement for the last seven months and is facing a court martial in the new year. The former intelligence analyst is charged with unauthorised downloads of classified material while serving on an army base outside Baghdad. He is suspected of taking copies not only of the state department archive, but also of video of an Apache helicopter crew gunning down civilians in Baghdad, and hundreds of thousands of daily war logs from military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It was childishly easy, according to the published chatlog of a conversation Manning had with a fellow-hacker. “I would come in with music on a CD-RW labelled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’ … erase the music … then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing … [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s Telephone while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.” He said that he “had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months”.
Manning told his correspondent Adrian Lamo, who subsequently denounced him to the authorities: “Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public … Everywhere there’s a US post, there’s a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed. Worldwide anarchy in CSV format … It’s beautiful, and horrifying.”
Oh, please. Tell me that Manning was an encryption genius that spent years cracking some Pentagon code to access the mainframe while rappelling into an antechamber deep in a basement and into a Situation Room. Do not tell me that a corporal was allowed to carry a rewriteable CD into a secure communications area by labeling it as a pop music mix tape. I’ve been in uncleared defense contractor sites with better security than that.
That’s the real scandal. Rewriteable CDs are an obvious security hole. It’s almost as obvious as tape recorder or camera. And if Manning thought of it, there are probably more who have done similar sorts of thefts, perhaps for other ends, which may be even more problematic. After all, we know what Manning got; it’s being splashed all over the New York Times and other publications around the world. Who knows what China, Russia, or Iran may have learned by now?
I mean, other than what they’re learning this weekend?
So far, the only real surprises from these releases have been that Israel is a lot less inclined to attack Iran than the Sunni Arab nations in the region and that America seems incapable of guarding its secrets properly. Thanks to that latter revelation, we’re going to have fewer allies willing to trust us with intelligence or diplomacy, which poses a real danger to both the US and the world in an era where rogue nations are achieving threat parity.
More than 3 million US government personnel and soldiers, many extremely junior, are cleared to have potential access to this material, even though the cables contain the identities of foreign informants, often sensitive contacts in dictatorial regimes. Some are marked “protect” or “strictly protect”.
Three million? Why? Blame 9/11, or something, according to the State Department:
“The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath revealed gaps in intra-governmental information sharing. Since the attacks of 9/11, the US government has taken significant steps to facilitate information sharing. These efforts were focused on giving diplomatic, military, law enforcement and intelligence specialists quicker and easier access to more data to more effectively do their jobs.”
He added: “We have been taking aggressive action in recent weeks and months to enhance the security of our systems and to prevent the leak of information.”
I don’t think 9/11 got past us because Army corporals didn’t have access to highly sensitive classified material. Read the rest of Bruce’s post to get the sense of what a screw-up this has been.