Leaks Probe Focuses On Low-Level Army Analyst

The unauthorized release of some 250,000 diplomatic cables raises questions about how such sensitive information could be made public so easily. Apparently, a young Army soldier had access to the State Department documents and managed to download them. The Pentagon has instituted changes to protect its computer systems.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, Im Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

Beyond the latest WikiLeaks revelations is a question: Its how hundreds of thousands of State Department documents became public at all, exposing diplomats' private views of foreign leaders and nations. The answer involves technology, the desire to share information within the government and, in a way, this music.

(Soundbite of song)

LADY GAGA (Singer-songwriter): (Singing)

INSKEEP: This is what should have been on a CD in the hands of an American soldier. We're going to look this morning at what really may have been on that CD, or on something as simple as a computer thumb drive.

NPR's Rachel Martin has our story.

RACHEL MARTIN: Picture this: A cherubic looking 22-year-old Army private working as an intelligence analyst, just outside Baghdad. He goes into work and downloads hundreds of thousands of documents about high-level U.S. diplomacy. He burns the data onto a disc that he's labeled as a Lady Gaga album, and just walks away with it. Or at least that's the theory.

Private First Class Bradley Manning, now in custody, is believed to be the person responsible for all the recent leaks, including low level field reports on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It made sense that someone with Manning's job would have access to those documents. But the latest release has left many in the intelligence community asking this...

Dr. JOEL BRENNER (Former Inspector General, National Security Agency): What is a private, an Army private, in a war theater doing with access to sensitive diplomatic cables involving the king of Saudi Arabia or the economy of Iceland?

MARTIN: Joel Brenner is the former inspector general for the National Security Agency.

Dr. BRENNER: This is really information sharing run into the ditch. And as a result, were undressing ourselves electronically, faster than our adversaries could possibly do it to us.

MARTIN: Private First Class Manning had access to the State Department cables through a secure Pentagon database. That kind of sharing among agencies was thought to be a good thing after 9/11, when the intelligence community was accused of hoarding information.

Brenner says that now there's a culture of over-sharing.

Dr. BRENNER: Ive been terribly concerned that a disaster like this was just waiting to happen, 'cause its caused by a relentless push to move information before we understand where its really going.

MARTIN: In other words: Sharing for the sake of sharing, which carries risks. Already this year, WikiLeaks has released documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon ordered a review to try to figure out how the breach happened. The investigation found major lapses in how the Pentagon intelligence database is secured and monitored.

Philip Zelikow is a former diplomat and executive director of the 9/11 Commission.

Dr. PHILIP ZELIKOW (Former Executive Director, 9/11 Commission): When PFC Manning or anyone else uses this intelligence database, theres a big warning on the screen that they get that tells them that anything you do on this database is subject to be monitored - which is exactly as it should be. But you actually then have to monitor it.

MARTIN: And because that monitoring hasn't been happening.

Dr. ZELIKOW: Apparently no one noticed that one of their analysts was pulling down hundreds of thousands of pieces of information, far beyond any conceivable definition of that analyst's need to know it.

MARTIN: The Pentagon is trying to fix the security gaps. This week, Defense officials announced that it will now be much harder to download classified information onto removable data devices, like a thumb drive. And they're creating a new oversight system. When someone tries to access a huge amount of classified data, like all those secret cables, it triggers a red flag. Kind of like when a credit card company calls you to make sure unusual purchases are legit.

Still, Colonel Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, says the technical fixes may not be enough.

Colonel DAVID LAPAN (Spokesman, Pentagon): You're talking about individuals. Only so many procedures can be put into place to monitor and to safeguard information. Ultimately its the responsibility of individuals to follow those.

MARTIN: So in the end, it's a leap of faith, trusting the people who are given access to secret information in the first place.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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