COMMENTARY

Info sharing: Compartmentalization vs. common sense

Ambassador David Smith is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va., and the U.S. member of the International Security Advisory Board, for which he helps independent states of the former Soviet Union build democracies and establish functional national security establishments.

The 2,000-plus cables WikiLeaks has published are wreaking considerable damage. Consequently, the federal government must tighten personnel and technical security, but it must do so without alienating its very loyal workforce and without reintroducing the stovepipes that were dismantled in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Some of the cables reveal — or help reveal — sensitive information on people, critical locations or other subjects. Some cables might only be embarrassing. But the whole damage done is greater than the sum of the parts.

"The WikiLeaks disclosures have been disastrous for U.S. diplomacy," said George Yeo, Singapore's foreign minister. "We [now] have to be more guarded in our communications with U.S. diplomats.”

Similarly, U.S. diplomats will be more circumspect in their reporting. And government agencies are considering barriers to interagency information sharing.

Public disclosure of routine classified documents might not induce a nuclear attack, but the government has a national security interest in protecting them to preserve the efficacy of U.S. diplomacy and government operations. Nevertheless, the government must update laws, definitions and procedures for classified information, most of which date to the Cold War.

Back then, Soviet spies wanted lists of covert agents and plans for quieter submarines, not reports about a voluptuous blonde nurse employed by some two-bit dictator. And if anyone had tried to buy 100,000 documents, delivery would have required an 18-wheeler. Today, the culprit might be a starry-eyed transparency activist who can download all that information onto a handful of CDs or a portable hard drive.

There are some obvious, common-sense fixes. Portable media ports must be physically blocked on most classified computers. The ban on personal electronic devices in classified work spaces must be enforced. Refresher training and peer responsibility will accomplish that more effectively than handbag searches. And to reduce the temptation to smuggle those devices, people in classified areas should have reasonable access to the Internet or an adjacent Internet café.

It’s also important to borrow best practices from industry and the military to develop programs that help identify employees who are becoming disgruntled or disaffected or who are experiencing life problems that could affect their judgment.

In those cases, access should be controlled but not restricted. We must not reintroduce the compartmentalization and strict need-to-know rules that were scuttled after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Analysts must have the ability to combine disparate information that could thwart the next threat. One security measure could be requiring that a workplace buddy sign in with analysts seeking access to information not directly related to his or her job. And agencies could automatically audit the type and volume of information accessed against a user profile.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. But the point is to meet the WikiLeaks challenge with common sense and good people, not with draconian measures that could end up reducing our national security and further harming our national interests.

About the Author

Ambassador David J. Smith is a senior fellow with the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Virginia.

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Reader comments

Wed, Feb 9, 2011 Ralph Hitchens Poolesville, MD

This and other articles in the January 31 issue ("The Long Shadow of Wikileaks") seem to miss the point. From all I've read it looks like one guy doing multiple downloads from SIPRNet workstations with open i/o devices. SIPRNet's security suite (I believe it's called the "Host-Based Security System") apparently had the requisite download monitoring tools but they were not in use. Everyone knows that SIPRNet is "looser" than other classified networks because it supports the operational forces. Open i/o was needed in-theater to "push" digital classified data to units/sites off the network. From what I've read in the defense press the biggest fear of SIPRNet network administrators was outside penetration, the network having suffered a recent malware infection from a rogue thumb drive. The "trusted insider" threat was largely ignored. Enter PFC Manning, and the rest is history. I'm assuming the barn door is now closed, and that suggests to me that Wikileaks' 15 minutes of fame at DOD expense has come and gone. It would be tragic to crack down on information sharing at this point. Lack of information sharing killed 3,000 people on 9/11, and I for one would rather accept the occasional Wikileak as a cost of doing business than return to the bad old days.

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