WikiLeaks: How did the Pentagon lose track of 91,000 documents?

Military analysts say three trends involving technology, workplace culture, and the nature of modern warfare explain how WikiLeaks could have gotten so many classified Pentagon documents.

By , Staff writer

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    Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen at a press conference in Baghdad Tuesday. Mullen says the leak of US military documents about Afghanistan could put American lives at risk.
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It could take months or years – and perhaps a court martial – before the full fallout of WikiLeaks' release of more than 90,000 secret documents is known. It could well take until the end of the war in Afghanistan, or at least until US and allied counterintelligence sources have done their work looking for evidence that the Taliban and Al Qaeda benefited from the revelations.

But for now, military analysts see important recent trends that help explain how the WikiLeaks leak happened: new technology, the working relationships and culture within the military and intelligence services, and the evolving nature of 21st century warfare.

Technology

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It was just a few years ago that spies like Jonathan Pollard, the civilian intelligence analyst who spied for Israel, and Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who spied for the Soviet Union and Russia, had to obtain paper copies of secret documents – sometimes thousands of pages that were then bundled up and turned over to foreign agents or secretly planted for pick up.

Whoever obtained and revealed the 90,000 classified documents made public by WikiLeaks had it much easier.

“He was basically able to put the Library of Alexandria on a thumb drive and walk out the door,” says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. “That’s the part that I find distressing. I just don’t see how a well-designed system would allow that to happen.”

Mr. Pike notes that the music industry and Google Books seem to have better digital image control than the US military in this instance. Google notices if you’re downloading large numbers of PDF book files at a time, he says.

Military and intelligence culture

The 9/11 attacks brought about an accelerated effort to break down the compartmentalized walls between US intelligence agencies and among those with top secret (and above) clearances. The number of “sensitive compartmented information facilities” and the number of individuals cleared to enter those facilities increased rapidly.

Meanwhile, it became a lot easier to share and discuss information informally (and sometime privately) via the Internet.

“With this came the military-intel equivalent of chat rooms, blogs, etc. – ways for these analysts to freely interact,” says Larry Seaquist, a retired US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist.

“Then they moved to expand access beyond intel specialists, allowing operational military people at least partway into the circle … to the point where fairly junior people way out in the periphery of the military-intel system now have very high level access,” says Mr. Seaquist, who is now a state representative in Washington State. Much of this is detailed in the recent Washington Post series, "Top Secret America."

At a Pentagon press conference Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke directly to this issue.

“As a general proposition, we endeavor to push sensitive battlefield information down to where it is most useful – on the front lines – where, as a practical matter, there are fewer restrictions and controls than at rear headquarters,” Secretary Gates said. “In the wake of this incident, it will be a real challenge to strike the right balance between security and providing our frontline troops the information they need.”

The nature of warfare

Military operations these days are far different than the classic, centrally coordinated military operations as recent as the Vietnam War – even though Vietnam, like Afghanistan, was seen as a counterinsurgency (COIN) venture.

Small operations – most of them unknown to the public – are occurring in many places around the world. There is considerable individual and small-unit effort, encouraged by superior officers and seen as essential at a time when the perceived enemy often acts in the same way. (For a while, the Army’s recruiting slogan was “Army of One.”)

The working climate for many in uniform these days is “more diffuse, less intensively coordinated,” says Seaquist, and this can lead to a greater potential for trouble – including the misuse of classified information for personal, ideological, or political reasons.

“Formerly shipmates and supervisors could readily see who was having a difficult emotional time, who was at risk of emotionally checking out,” he says, speaking of his days as a battleship captain.

“Short of a trial and/or a shrink’s exam, we’ll not know what drove the leaker to leak,” Seaquist observes. “But one wonders whether these new age, highly dispersed COIN ops may infer a need for people with a higher level of self-driven motivation for cooperation. Maybe these ops allow the unhappy soldier to act in ways that traditional military working climates would have tended to correct.”

At his press conference Thursday, Gates reminded everyone in uniform of their responsibility regarding information that could be harmful if made public.

“US military success over the years rests on the abilities and integrity of its men and women in uniform and our trust in them,” he said. “This trust is represented by the fact that relative to other countries’ armed forces, our military culture is one that on the battlefield places great responsibility on the shoulders of even junior service members to include entrusting them with sensitive information. The American way of war depends upon it. But to earn and maintain that trust, we must all be responsible in handling, protecting, and safeguarding our nation’s secrets.”

Related:

WikiLeaks Q&A with Daniel Ellsberg, the man behind the Pentagon Papers

WikiLeaks documents explosive, but no Pentagon Papers -- yet

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