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WikiLeaks Disclosure Highlights Problems of Sharing Secret Information Within US Government

The release of another huge trove of classified U.S. government documents by the WikiLeaks website came as a shock to many security experts. Previous WikiLeaks disclosures were low-level field reports on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the latest documents deal with diplomatic rather than military matters, and often at a high level. Some analysts say government agencies might have been more forthcoming in sharing information than they should have.

For many people, such as British parliamentarian Malcolm Rifkind, the surprise in the release of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables was not only in what they contained, but in how widely available they were in government circles.

"It is not just that they were made public, but that some of these cables are of hugely sensitive material. And I was certainly very surprised and concerned that literally thousands of people appear to have access to them. And obviously, the more people who have access, the more likely they are to leak," Rifkind said.

Analysts say the WikiLeaks disclosures can be traced in part to changes instituted in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. The 9/11 Commission sharply criticized intelligence agencies for failing to share critical information with each other that, when combined, might have revealed and perhaps thwarted the plot. But analysts say intelligence agencies by nature are secretive and distrustful of outsiders, so getting them to open up to each other has been a monumental task.

The Pentagon created a classified computer network called the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, or SIPRNet, a classified Internet linking the Defense and State Departments, allowing them to exchange messages and information graded "Secret" or below. In the spirit of open exchange, it is accessible to anyone with the proper security clearance in either agency.

But analysts say that the system's openness was its vulnerability. Officials say a U.S. Army private first class, or PFC, the third lowest rank in the Army, downloaded thousands of documents from SIPRNet and passed them on to WikiLeaks. PFC Bradley Manning, an intelligence analyst, was arrested and charged in June in connection with another leak and is reported to be under investigation for other unauthorized disclosures to WikiLeaks.

Former CIA General Counsel Jeffrey Smith says merely the idea that a low-ranking soldier could have access to such information raises disturbing questions.

"It certainly is a real question as to why a private, even in the intelligence business, should have access to such vast amounts of data that would seem to have nothing to do with his responsibilities. On the other hand, there has been a great deal of criticism of the defense and intelligence community for not adequately sharing information. And I suspect that in their zeal to assist intelligence analysts, people were permitted access to things without adequate oversight," Smith said.

Cyber intelligence expert Jeffrey Carr, who has advised the U.S. government on cyber threats, says he was shocked that there were apparently no monitoring and alert systems to warn that someone was downloading huge amounts of data. He says agencies relied too much on technology as a fix for the problem of information sharing.

"People are always looking to find a technological solution and trust in automated systems, that somehow that's where the solution resides. And it doesn't. You know, you're always going to get owned when you put your trust 100 percent in some automated solution, security solution especially," Carr said.

There are fears that agencies will now slip back into their own more secretive ways. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, whose job was created to spur cooperation and information sharing among government agencies, said earlier this month that previous WikiLeaks disclosures have not helped dissolve mutual bureaucratic distrust among the some 16 intelligence agencies of the federal government.

"WikiLeaks and the continued hemorrhaging of leaks in the media don't do much to support the notion of integration and collaboration. So I personally think that the sweet spot, the balance here, has to be achieved between the need to share and the need to protect. And we have to do, for one, a much better job of auditing what is going on any - at least any IC [i.e., intelligence community] computer. And so if somebody's downloading a half-billion documents and we find out about it contemporaneously, not after the fact," Clapper said.

Time magazine reports that the State Department has already disconnected itself from SIPRNet, at least temporarily, and the Pentagon has ordered new measures to tighten security among the network's users.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Directory of National Intelligence as Raymond Clapper. VOA regrets the error.