WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The damaging disclosure by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks of sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables could put a chill on the sharing of intelligence considered vital to waging war and averting al Qaeda attacks.
Nine years after the September 11 attacks ushered in a new age of U.S. intelligence sharing, the website’s release of some 250,000 sensitive diplomatic cables is raising accusations that too much U.S. intelligence is being shared with too many people — in an age when digital data is too easy to steal.
The full extent of the diplomatic fallout is still unclear but the leaks threaten to erode trust of crucial U.S. allies, who justifiably may now fear speaking candidly with Washington if those private revelations might be made public.
From a global perspective, the system now in place to guard U.S. secrets has lost credibility and Washington may need to take major steps to show its secrets are safe, observers say.
“This is a colossal failure by our intel community, by our Department of Defense, to keep classified information secret,” said Peter Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
“This database should never have been created. Hundreds of thousands of people should not have been provided access to it,” he told CBS’s Morning Show.
U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, believe that WikiLeaks data from the latest leak and previous dumps of hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraq war logs were gleaned from the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, known as SIPRNet.
The network gives access to documents at a lower level of secrecy to U.S. national security officials, including the Defense Department and State Department.
“You get on the SIPRNet and you have access to tons of (more) stuff than just a few years earlier, when you were dealing more with paper,” said Paul Pillar, a former CIA official now with Georgetown University.
A Pentagon spokesman acknowledged that efforts in the post-9/11 era to give diplomatic, military, law enforcement and intelligence specialists quicker and easier access to data “have had unintended consequences — making our sensitive data more vulnerable to compromise.”
The White House appeared to take a small step toward more secrecy, ordering government agencies to tighten procedures on handling classified information. The Office of Management and Budget said it aimed to ensure “users do not have broader access than is necessary to do their jobs effectively.”
The Pentagon and State Department also said they are tightening up procedures to prevent more disclosures.
“This will be a force in swinging (the pendulum) in favor of less sharing and more control,” said Pillar, adding in the short term he saw pressure for “more restrictions.”
After the September 11 attacks in 2001, U.S. intelligence officials were chastised for failing to “connect the dots” before the attacks on New York and Washington. Less sharing could complicate efforts to prevent another attack, and Pillar noted that the pendulum could swing back again toward greater sharing if al Qaeda successfully struck U.S. targets.
The U.S. investigation into the disclosures so far has focused on Bradley Manning, a former low-level U.S. Army intelligence analyst in Iraq charged with leaking a classified video showing a 2007 helicopter attack that killed a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists. He was also accused of downloading state department cables.
In the wake of Manning’s arrest, U.S. officials have been struggling to explain how a low-level analyst in Iraq could have had access to so much sensitive information.
“The administration must identify how someone was able to leak such a large amount of classified information and build safeguards to ensure this does not happen again,” said Howard McKeon, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking to reporters in July after the WikiLeaks document dump on the Afghan war, said if the security breach had occurred at a rear headquarters or in the United States, it would have been detected.
The Pentagon has said it is now looking at controls like those credit card companies have to detect anomalous behavior. It is also disabling the ability to download computer data onto removable storage devices and increasing training to raise awareness of a potential “insider threat.”
“It is now much more difficult for a determined actor to get access to and move information outside of authorized channels,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
Whether it is enough remains an open question.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence who is tasked with promoting greater cooperation within the U.S. intelligence community, hinted last month that leaks in Washington were already threatening sharing.
“In this day and age, with the hemorrhage of leaks in this town, I think compartmentation, appropriate reasonable compartmentation, is the right thing to do,” Clapper said.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman