The Government’s Real Problem With the Bradley Manning Trial

Patrick Semansky/AP

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Despite a guilty verdict on most counts, the government still can't share intelligence. By Matthew Cooper

Now that a military judge has acquitted Pfc. Bradley Manning of aiding the enemy and convicted him of violating the Espionage Act, civil libertarians are breathing a small sigh of relief. But the Obama administration still has a big problem: how to control the flow of information between government agencies so you don’t have a system that allows a private stationed in Iraq—or a contractor dating an acrobat in Hawaii—from downloading and distributing secret documents.

Top officials know they’ve got a problem. Earlier this month, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter addressed the information-sharing problem at the Aspen Security Forum. “There was an enormous amount of information concentrated in one place,” Carter said. “It creates too much information in one place. You had an individual who was given very substantial authority to access that information and move that information. That ought not to be the case, either.”

How did we get in this mess? Before the 9/11 attacks, government policies were the worst of both worlds: On one hand, you had a vast overclassification of documents shielding many secrets from government accountability. (See the 1997 panel led by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.) And, of course, you had too little sharing between government agencies, which could possibly have prevented 9/11. When it came to the hijackers, we now sadly know the FBI didn’t know what the CIA was doing—and vice versa. Even within the FBI, there wasn’t enough information sharing.

A number of changes were made after that, thanks to the 9/11 report. There were things like the National Counter Terrorism Center, the Patriot Act’s breaking down of walls between agencies, and a vast expansion of computer sharing. As the national security state swelled, there was an explosion in classification, but at least the upside was an ability for agencies to cooperate more easily, and this led to the bin Laden raid and the capture of the Times Square bomber. The vast archives of sensitive information grew, and so did those who had access to them, including Manning, who inserted blank CDs marked “Lady Gaga,” slipped them into a drive in Baghdad, donned headphones like he was rocking out, and downloaded some 700,000 documents, shipping them off to WikiLeaks.

As a low-level military intelligence officer, Manning not surprisingly had access to Pentagon secrets. But one of the most perplexing things about the case was his access to State Department cables. When Manning’s leak was first uncovered, then-Rep. Pete Hoekstra asked what everyone was wondering. “Why would a private first class, sitting in Baghdad, have access to data far beyond his area of responsibility?” Hoekstra asked. “How can it be that between 500,000 and potentially over a million government employees have access to a database of sensitive State Department cables?”

In the following months, we learned a lot more about the wide availability of State Department cables. “Thee idea was that there was a wealth of information that needed to be available on the ground, to the war-fighters,” testified Charlie Wisecarver, the former deputy chief technology officer at State during the Manning trial who outlined the Horizontal Fusion program. Collecting the cables was a high priority at State, which even asked department enlisted Foreign Service officers’ spouses to scan in older cables. Cables were uploaded to the Defense Department’s Secret Internet Protocol Router Network. The State Department didn’t put much in the way of restrictions on their use by the military, although at Foggy Bottom there were more protocols. The consequence is, Manning’s documents rocked the world, perhaps even helping to ignite the Arab Spring when it was revealed how corrupt U.S. officials considered the Tunisian regime.

Steps have been taken to come up with a more sensible information flow. State is scrubbing cables more carefully before sending them to the Pentagon, and the Pentagon is tightening access. As part of a discussion of the Snowden case at the Aspen Security Forum in July, National Security Agency Director General Keith Alexander said, “You limit the numbers of people who can write to removable media. Instead of allowing all systems administrators [to do it], you drop it down to a few and use a two-person rule…. We’ll close and lock server rooms, so that it takes two people to get in there.”

But Washington is still worried. In a recent interview with National Journal, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, a former officer in the Navy Intelligence Reserve, said, “We have a classified Internet on the backside of the intelligence community, and if you’re on that system, then a Bradley Manning can download the presidential book of secrets like in the movie [National Treasure].” He noted that he didn’t have nearly the kind of access to government-wide data when he was in the Balkans and Afghanistan as part of the reserves.

The trouble for Obama and his successors is that there’s no easy way to fix the problem. Yes, you can make it harder to download data or have more alerts when someone does. It’s pretty clear that no system is safe, and as long as the government has lots of people with lots of access to goldmines of classified data this won’t be the last Bradley Manning.

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