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How the US government – and you – should assess secrets in the WikiLeaks age

For all the media drooling over WikiLeaks, the most serious implications of the leaked cables aren't on foreign diplomacy but on information security. The post-9/11 information age demands a rethink of how sensitive information is processed – by the government, but also by readers and reporters.

By William Courtney and Kenneth Yalowitz / December 23, 2010

Washington and Hanover, N.H.

WikiLeaks has unveiled startling details of American diplomacy. Now, it’s time to figure out how to sensibly reduce the risk of future disclosures of national security secrets, and to correct misimpressions from present ones.

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First, we have to ask: What went wrong? Was Army PFC Bradley Manning – the presumed leaker – the problem? Or is the issue broader security weaknesses? As it turns out, it’s both.

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After the September 2001 terrorist attacks, US policy on sharing national security information took a pendulum swing from “need to know” to “need to share.”

Proponents argued that if fragmentary threat data had been better shared, the attacks may have been detected and thwarted. It is now clear, however, that insufficiently controlled sharing has abetted damaging leaks. How can a proper balance between information sharing and good security be restored?

Return to 'need to know'

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First, the national security community should return to the time-tested security principle of need-to-know. In Baghdad, Mr. Manning apparently did not have access to reports bearing the handling controls for more sensitive diplomatic information, EXDIS for “exclusive distribution” or NODIS for “no distribution.” In this respect, security worked.

Stricter controls also need to be applied to who can gain access to sensitive information. A candid telegram from the US embassy in Rome to help prepare Washington leaders to meet with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi should not have gone to the US military in Baghdad. Filters, electronic and manual, can prevent such misdirection.

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Personnel security is also important. A Washington Post article this September reported that the sergeant in Baghdad who supervised Manning “was so concerned about the soldier’s mental health” that he disabled his weapon, according to Manning’s attorney. Yet the private continued analyzing intelligence. If true, sound personnel security policies were not being enforced. Manning should have been removed from sensitive work, pending a professional evaluation.

US diplomats are even more important

Beyond better controls on information and access, there’s a second lesson to be learned from the WikiLeaks revelations. Those who see US diplomats overseas as less relevant – given modern communications and information flows – are wrong. The disclosures show the unique value of embassy reporting and analysis, and of sustained personal engagement with foreign leaders in their own environments.

The US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, for instance, is better able to have frequent, candid interchanges with Saudi leaders on a range of US interests than are leaders in faraway Washington who occasionally visit or telephone.


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