The Government’s Real Problem With the Bradley Manning Trial

Patrick Semansky/AP

AA Font size + Print

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.

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Software-Defined Networking

    So many demands are being placed on federal information technology networks, which must handle vast amounts of data, accommodate voice and video, and cope with a multitude of highly connected devices while keeping government information secure from cyber threats. This issue brief discusses the state of SDN in the federal government and the path forward.

  • Military Readiness: Ensuring Readiness with Analytic Insight

    To determine military readiness, decision makers in defense organizations must develop an understanding of complex inter-relationships among readiness variables. For example, how will an anticipated change in a readiness input really impact readiness at the unit level and, equally important, how will it impact readiness outside of the unit? Learn how to form a more sophisticated and accurate understanding of readiness and make decisions in a timely and cost-effective manner.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • A New Security Architecture for Federal Networks

    Federal government networks are under constant attack, and the number of those attacks is increasing. This issue brief discusses today's threats and a new model for the future.

  • Information Operations: Retaking the High Ground

    Today's threats are fluent in rapidly evolving areas of the Internet, especially social media. Learn how military organizations can secure an advantage in this developing arena.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.