Fighting online leaks
- By Dan Verton
- Jul 31, 2000
When a classified CIA overview of the U.S. intelligence community appeared
on the Internet this month, it raised serious questions in national security
circles about how the Digital Age has popped the top off classified information.
The CIA had prepared the briefing documents for Japanese intelligence
officials and had included the names of hundreds of Japanese security agents,
as well as the author's home telephone number, e-mail address and secure
satellite telephone number.
The online posting of the briefing is the latest incident in a string
of leaks that has the intelligence community and Congress up in arms (see
box). Intelligence experts point to a fundamental breakdown in discipline
as the likely culprit behind the seemingly unending leaks.
John Young, a New York City-based architect, runs the World Wide Web
site Cryptome. For the past six years, he has collected and posted to the
site a library's worth of documents that pertain to intelligence and encryption
from people who have access to sensitive or classified information.
He first posted the CIA overview briefing shortly after receiving it
from Noda Hironari, a former officer in Japan's Public Security Investigation
Young received a direct request from the FBI to remove the documents
from his Web site, but he defended his decision to keep the briefing online
on the grounds that a court had not ordered him to remove the documents.
"The stuff comes in pretty much ready to read," Young said.
However, deciding whether to post an item is rarely an issue, he said.
"We don't really get that much sent to us that is controversial, much less
classified," Young said. "So when we do get a hot item, it's almost sure
to be offered."
Young said he recalls only one item in the past four years that he did
not post. That document included the specifications of a commercial encryption
chip. The source of the document eventually gave Young permission to post
it, and he did.
However, the disclosure of sensitive intelligence information, including
the names of agents and other sources and methods, has the CIA and Congress
concerned. Congress, in a report on the fiscal 2001 intelligence authorization
bill, ordered the CIA to produce a report by December outlining all security
leaks that have taken place since 1998, including the damage the leaks have
A spokesperson for the CIA acknowledged that the agency views the problem
primarily as a personnel issue but said the Internet now provides access
to thousands of people who otherwise would not have had it.
"You have to question what the utility of doing this is," the spokesperson
said. "We are very concerned about any leaks of classified information,
particularly when it concerns possible disclosure of sources and methods."
Steven Aftergood, an intelligence specialist who runs the Federation
of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, said the leaks stem
from a combination of factors, including an erosion of discipline, a loss
of respect for the classification system and the increased ability to disseminate
"Although people still sign nondisclosure agreements in which they make
a solemn commitment to respect classification restrictions, it seems that
more and more people are prepared to renege on that commitment," Aftergood
The intelligence community has been slow to adapt to the Digital Age
and is in desperate need of a major policy overhaul, particularly in the
area of classification policy, Aftergood said. However, the policy will
likely be "wait and see what happens," he said.