Bradley Manning’s WikiLeaks case: The larger issue
December 23, 2011
After 19 months in military prisons — much of the time in solitary confinement — Pfc. Bradley Manning finally emerged over the past week from the netherworld to which he has been confined since his arrest in the largest breach of classified information in U.S. history.
Seven days of hearings at Fort Meade, Md., produced what the prosecution called “overwhelming” evidence that the low-ranking Army intelligence analyst was the one who sent hundreds of thousands of military reports and diplomatic cables to the transparency website WikiLeaks.
But the hearing also produced equally compelling evidence of the larger issue that is often overlooked in discussions of Manning’s alleged misdeeds: the systematic breakdown in security that enabled a low-ranking enlisted man to abscond with a staggering quantity of classified Pentagon and State Department documents.
Manning’s facing prosecution because “he’s the one that pushed send and the other guys didn’t,” said John Hutson, a retired rear admiral and former judge advocate general of the Navy.
But, Hutson said, that doesn’t mean Manning is the only one deserving of blame for what happened.
“You can tell by his uniform he’s the juniorest guy in the office. There’s this whole hierarchy of people above him, many, many of whom … failed in one respect or another. They failed in their responsibilities,” Hutson said.
Despite a series of violent outbursts and other indications he was in serious mental distress, Manning’s security clearance wasn’t suspended until he was arrested in May of last year. Some soldiers had long thought he was a threat to himself and others. At least one believed Manning had lunged for a weapon during a fight with another soldier.
Yet Manning was allowed to spend about six months in a purportedly secure intelligence center in eastern Iraq with routine access to classified information — the same center where he sometimes sat at his computer or curled up on the floor, unresponsive to other soldiers.
And the fact that a junior soldier was downloading 700,000 reports, most of them classified, didn’t seem to set off any alarms. Nor were there any questions at the time about why an analyst in Iraq needed vast numbers of military reports from Afghanistan, diplomatic cables about Iceland or assessments of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Security was so lax that anyone with access to the classified network could burn reams of “secret” data to a CD and simply walk out the door.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said the episode was in some ways a predictable outcome of the rush after the Sept. 11 attacks to share intelligence across the government and to push intelligence to the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Everybody was on the bandwagon of sharing information with everybody,” the Michigan Republican told POLITICO. “You’re in a very fast-paced combat environment trying to ensure the warfighter up front had all the information available. … Mistakes were clearly made but in a context where people were trying to share information as quickly as possible, this is what happens. When you get someone who goes off the rails, they can do something like this.”
One former senior military official said it’s a bit odd that Manning is the only person on the hook if the damage caused by WikiLeaks was as severe as some have said.
“When you listen to people across the government, … you would think this [leak] was causing the world to spin off its axis,” said the official, who asked not to be named. “If that is true, why don’t we then hold people accountable further up the chain?”
While Manning is clearly facing the most serious punishment, others involved have not escaped unscathed.
After Manning’s arrest and as the criminal investigation of his conduct continued, the Army launched a probe into the shortcomings in personnel and security procedures. The probe by Lt. Gen Robert Caslen, concluded earlier this year, led to 15 people being disciplined, according to Army spokesman George Wright.
Wright would not detail the discipline further or say how high it reached in Army ranks, but testimony at Manning’s hearing identified three of those who were punished.
Master Sgt. Paul Adkins, the noncommissioned officer who supervised Manning, was reduced one grade to sergeant first class. He appears to be appealing that action. Called by the prosecution to testify at Manning’s hearing, Adkins exercised his right not to incriminate himself.
The top intelligence officer for the combat brigade Manning served in, Capt. Steven Lim, testified that he received a letter of admonition in the Caslen probe.
And the person in charge of the brigade’s computer networks, Capt. Thomas Cherepko, conceded he also got a letter of admonishment for failing to secure those systems.
Hutson said that while those punishments may sound minor to civilians, they can have a dramatic impact in the military.
“The punishment these guys get are generally career-enders,” Hutson said. “The captain may never become a major and may have to get out of the Army. … A letter of admonition sounds awfully weak but in reality, it changes your life.”
The others who received discipline remain a mystery, as does any punishment anyone else in the government may have received for putting databases like the diplomatic cables up on a classified system where they could be downloaded.
“It should not have been physically possible to do what Manning allegedly did, which is to transfer information out of a classified network undetected,” said Steven Aftergood, who studies classified information policy for the Federation of American Scientists. “I don’t think they were enforcing their own policy at that location in Iraq and probably not elsewhere either. … They created a situation where an individual given to temptation could easily yield and it didn’t have to be that way.”
In testimony at Manning’s legal hearing, Army personnel said it was possible to “burn” compact discs on the classified computer system in the center where he worked because there was a need to share intelligence information with Iraqi forces.
But there was also testimony that music CDs and other CDs were often scattered around the center, a carelessness that apparently made it easy for Manning to put secret files on CDs with labels like “Lady Gaga.”
Even Manning seemed to marvel at how poorly secured the military computer systems were.
“It was a massive data spillage … facilitated by numerous factors … both physically, technically and culturally,” Manning wrote just days before his arrest, according to transcripts of online chats published by Wired magazine.
“Perfect example of how not to do INFOSEC [information security] … pretty simple, and unglamorous … weak servers, weak logging, weak physical security, weak counter-intelligence, inattentive signal analysis … a perfect storm,” Manning wrote during his exchanges with ex-hacker Adrian Lamo, who turned Manning in.
According to Rogers, many of those security flaws are in the process of being fixed.
“We’re working toward a ‘smart access’ system. It’s now manual, but soon we’ll be able to do it technically or electronically,” he said. Roger said part of the system involves trying to be certain of who’s logged on to each computer at any given time. Another part is to make sure what they’re accessing makes sense given their responsibilities.
“If you’re working on Al Qaeda in Somalia, it’s probably not a good idea for you to be able to access nuclear information in Moscow. … This would be a real-time check,” Rogers said. “We’re trying to make sure that this can be done and people can still share information. … I feel very comfortable that we’re making some corrections so what happened could not be as easily accomplished as it was here.”
In December 2010, President Barack Obama named a deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Russell Travers, to ferret out the vulnerabilities exposed by WikiLeaks. And in October of this year, the president issued an executive order creating an Insider Threat Task Force to make sure that policies to prevent compromises of classified information are in place governmentwide.
The State Department cable database has been removed from military computers, officials said. And according to the White House, there’s been “significant progress in clarifying and standardizing removable media policies, processes and technical controls.” Auditing and identity verification features are also being improved, officials said.
Legal experts said the failures of others to prevent Manning’s alleged leaks do not amount to a real defense for him, but they could be relevant if the case goes to court martial and a panel of soldiers and officers is asked to decide on the appropriate punishment.
“In the military, people believe that officers and non-commissioned officers and others have responsibilities to make sure young troops don’t go off and do something stupid,” said Charles Dunlap, a retired Air Force major general who teaches at Duke University Law School.
“So if leadership dropped the ball somehow, that’s a factor that will likely be considered along with everything else in deciding the appropriate disposition of this case.”
P.J. Crowley, a former State Department spokesman who lost his job after criticizing Manning’s treatment in pre-trial custody, said the multiple failures don’t in any way excuse the intelligence analyst’s alleged leaks.
“Were there system failures? Were there supervisory failures? Undoubtedly,” said Crowley, a retired Air Force colonel who now teaches at Dickinson College. “But in the military culture, … they don’t take away from the individual’s responsibility to perform one’s duty within expectations and the law.”
Several former military officers said the episode demonstrates the risks of allowing rules and practices to get too lax on the front lines, especially after a decade of back-to-back military deployments.
“When people are in a combat zone, things that should happen don’t always happen because leaders are wrapped up fighting the big war,” Dunlap said. “It’s hard for commanders to focus on such things as the disciplinary and administrative aspects of command and also try to get the mission accomplished. … I think this case, as well as others like Abu Ghraib, may well be a testament to the fact that if you don’t look after the little things, they will eventually coalesce to bite you.”
“When the system is stressed like that, the lights are blinking, but you just don’t see it,” Crowley observed. “Unfortunately, in wartime, that happens.”
(Josh Gerstein, politico)