Outside editorial: Be careful about giving out access to secrets

Posted: Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

What is most disturbing about the public disclosure of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables is not so much the information that some of them contain.

Nor is it particularly disturbing that U.S. and foreign newspapers began publishing them this week. The stuff was going to come out anyway. It came from WikiLeaks, the online organization devoted to publishing official secrets, including nearly 400,000 military reports from the Iraq and Afghanistan war it posted in October.

What is most disturbing is what it says about the shoddy state of U.S. security. The diplomatic cables, as well as the war reports, were transmitted on a Defense Department network called Siprnet (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network). Top-secret materials are not transmitted on Siprnet, but anything classified "secret" or lower can be found there.

British newspaper The Guardian, one of WikiLeaks' chosen media giftees, reports that "more than 3 million U.S. government personnel and soldiers, many extremely junior, are cleared to have potential access to this material."

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, 22, used to be one of them. But, for the last seven months, he's been held in solitary confinement in the Marine Brig at Quantico, Va., suspected of being the source of the WikiLeaks material.

In July, the Washington Post reported that since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has spent uncounted billions on a security apparatus that includes 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies working in about 10,000 locations across the country. More than 850,000 people hold top-secret security clearances.

You can blame the media for publishing the cables if you like. You can do as White House press secretary Robert Gibbs did Monday and say that "(T)he stealing of classified info and its dissemination is a crime." You can go even farther, as soon-to-be-House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., did on Monday, and declare that WikiLeaks should be declared a "terrorist organization."

But if you've got 3 million people plugged into Siprnet, and 850,000 people with higher security classifications, don't be surprised when you get leaks.

The most troubling specific disclosure (so far) is that North Korea may have sold Iran intermediate-range missiles capable of striking Israel and European capitals like Berlin and Moscow. The cables detail U.S. diplomatic efforts aimed at limiting Iran's nuclear capabilities. One cable included the alarming news that Saudi Arabian King Abdullah had urged the United States "to cut off the head of the snake" - take military action against Iran.

Other cables merely confirm previously reported news - the United States is worried Pakistan's economic collapse might cause the leak of nuclear materials; the United States is knowingly dealing with corrupt politicians in Afghanistan; and Russian leaders have found common cause with elements of organized crime.

Still others contain embarrassing revelations: collaboration between the U.S. military and the government of Yemen to hide responsibility for U.S. anti-terrorist operations, that U.S. diplomats have been asked to gather personal information about United Nations officials and foreign diplomats and gossipy assessments of world leaders. This could result in well-placed wariness by foreign governments of U.S. diplomatic personnel.

Secrets will come out. Information is like an angry bear in a cage: It always wants out. If you want to keep it there, build a better cage and be careful about who gets a key.

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