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WikiLeaks fallout: Tighter access to US secrets?

Call it the big information chill, looming across the US military and intelligence communities. After the massive Afghan war data spill by WikiLeaks, some veteran intelligence officers and experts are suggesting a tightening of access to information and more monitoring in the spy agencies' lower levels.

world Updated: Jul 29, 2010 12:16 IST

Call it the big information chill, looming across the US military and intelligence communities. After the massive Afghan war data spill by WikiLeaks, some veteran intelligence officers and experts are suggesting a tightening of access to information and more monitoring in the spy agencies' lower levels.

They are blaming changes since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks against the United States, which promoted information sharing, as the cause of the government's losing control of the nation's secrets.

"Frankly, we all knew this was going to happen," says former CIA Director Michael Hayden. In a post-WikiLeaks world, he said many he has spoken to feel burned by the disclosures, and want to return to guarding their data.

The intelligence failures that led to the attacks of 9/11 were blamed on government agencies hoarding information instead of sharing it, missing crucial clues that could have headed off al-Qaida's strikes. Those changes, which reduced this kind of "stovepiping" of information, have produced the opposite problem: amassing so much data that officials complain it is hard to make sense of it, and as the WikiLeaks incident shows, keep it secret.

Both intelligence officials and outside experts suggested that agency chiefs may push to limit access to electronic "portals" that have provided growing data access to intelligence officers, diplomats and troops around the world. And others predicted tighter scrutiny by an administration that has already pushed aggressively to investigate and prosecute leakers.

On the other hand, some lawmakers worry that the leaking incident will give the 16 US intelligence agencies an excuse to go back to old ways of holding back information as "too sensitive" to be shared.
"The intelligence community has a long way to go in information sharing," says Sen. Kit Bond, top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"If these leaks lead to even more stovepipes," as in limiting access to data to only certain analysts or agencies, "it would be yet another devastating result of this betrayal," he said.

Rep Anna Eshoo, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee who shares those worries, conducted a closed hearing Tuesday on information sharing. Eshoo would not detail what went on at the hearing, but she said,"It's the nature of the intelligence community to hoard information." Despite the WikiLeaks episode, she said she would still push for "more information sharing in the intelligence community, not less."

Suspicion for the WikiLeaks document dump centers on Specialist Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old soldier who is being detained in Kuwait, charged with "mishandling and leaking classified data." Manning was blamed for leaking a classified helicopter cockpit video of a 2007 firefight in Baghdad. Detained after he bragged of providing classified material to WikiLeaks, Manning was later charged with accessing what were described as more than 150,000 classified State Department cables, which have yet to surface. So far, no U.S. official has linked Manning directly to the WikiLeaks documents.

One U.S. official who has examined some of the WikiLeaks documents said everything he had seen could have been obtained by Manning by surfing a Defense Department intranet system known as the "SIPRNet," or Secret Internet Protocol Router Network. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.

Intelligence analysts like Manning and even troops in the field can access military field reports from Iraq or Afghanistan, or State Department sites, or even some intelligence sites. The SIPRNet is not new, but access to it has grown since September 11, 2001, to make information available to those who need it as America engaged in two wars.

The government has also put more information on SIPRNet by adding more portals giving users access to non-Defense Department information systems such as Intelink, an inter-intelligence agency data-sharing system. Many of these portals require passwords to reach more highly classified information such as "Top Secret," as opposed to the less-restricted "secret" material made available by WikiLeaks.

The US official, who works regularly with these sites, said the defense community already had been fighting the natural inclination of those in the closed field of intelligence to restrict more of the portals by requiring passwords, even before the WikiLeaks incident.

Out on the battlefield, the WikiLeaks episode may also cause a new reluctance to share information. From a sergeant on the ground writing an after-action report following combat, to a supervisor reading the documents, there could well be a new push to leave information out rather than risk having it leaked. That could make it harder for military headquarters to get an immediate assessment of what is really happening on the battlefield, some officials say.

Additionally, it could harm the ability of military historians later to make sense of the war. But there is pressure from the other direction as well: No intelligence manager would want to be responsible for holding back information that could connect the dots and prevent a terror attack.

Steven Aftergood, a specialist on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, predicted that agencies would look for ways to tag records through electronic watermarks, so that their origins, and the leaker, could be more easily identified.

Former CIA chief Hayden, who now works at the Chertoff Group, a Washington-based consulting firm, went further, suggesting pouring resources into "real-time keystroke analysis of government employees," monitoring everything they type and creating a perpetual cyber-polygraph.

While that already happens at some top-secret facilities, expanding the effort to the hundreds of thousands of people who access the SIPRNet could add millions of dollars to the nation's already-huge costs of fighting terrorism and two wars.

First Published: Jul 29, 2010 12:12 IST