WikiLeaks Documents Sent Via Siprnet

London's Guardian newspaper was one of five news organizations that got early access to WikiLeaks' latest release of American documents. Guest host Audie Cornish talks with the paper's diplomatic editor, Julian Borger, about the secret communications system the cables were sent over, called Siprnet.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

Julian Borger is diplomatic editor of The Guardian newspaper in London. The paper was one of five news organizations that got early access to WikiLeaks' latest release of American documents.

He wrote today about the secret communication system where all these dispatches were pulled from, known as Siprnet.

Mr. JULIAN BORGER (Diplomatic Editor, The Guardian): It was almost like an Internet within the Internet. It was set up by the Defense Department back in the '90s, and the idea was to have a system of interlocking computer networks that could exchange data in a secure manner and so that the whole system was secure and accessible only to those with clearance.

And over time, that system grew, as more and more embassies were brought in, especially after 9/11, when it was felt that it was critical that information was shared across the military and the State Department.

And so, by now, there are about 250 embassies and consulates on the system, which means just about everyone.

CORNISH: And obviously, after 9/11, there was a lot of conversation about I think you heard phrases like breaking down the silos, trying to make it easier for people to tap into collective information about U.S. intelligence. And there seem to be a lot more people in the U.S. government, in embassies around the world, plugged into Siprnet.

Mr. BORGER: That's right. It's thought to be about three million people altogether. So, you know, for a secret system, it was pretty large. And that's exactly right.

It was an attempt to stop the (unintelligible) of information that was seen to be a problem in the run-up to 9/11, also the run-up to the Iraq War, where there was obviously a great intelligence breakdown. This is an attempt to cut across these information silos so people could share information and be aware of what the U.S. government knew as a whole.

CORNISH: And it sounds like a lot of people, but really, how easy is it to get access to this information?

Mr. BORGER: Well, you had to have a secret clearance, which is about medium-level clearance. A lot of soldiers, people in the armed services, had this, and a lot of people in the embassies.

You had to have that clearance. In theory, you had to have permission as well to use the system. You have to say why you needed it. And there were various other security mechanisms in the system, which seem to have broken down.

CORNISH: So give us an indication about who got into this database or what we know about who might have gotten into this database and how this information was downloaded.

Mr. BORGER: Well, the man who has been accused of leaking it is a U.S. Army intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning, who's at the moment in solitary confinement awaiting trial. And he boasted to a fellow hacker that what he did is he bought a music CD, I think a Lady Gaga CD, put it into the machine and erased the music and instead downloaded the files, and he did it day after day for about eight months.

Now, that shouldn't have been possible because there's supposed to be an online policing mechanism that raises an alert if there's unusual patterns of behavior. And this online policing mechanism appears to have been switched off in Iraq, where Bradley Manning was serving.

So that opened up a breach in the system, through which these leaks appear to have come.

CORNISH: And I've also read that he's alleged to have dropped some pretty strong hints about having this particular cache of information about the State Department and U.S. diplomatic community.

Mr. BORGER: That's right. He was boasting to a fellow hacker, you know, how the U.S. is going to wake up in the morning and then find all this stuff, you know, to their great embarrassment. (Unintelligible) boast about it, and that's why he's now facing trial.

CORNISH: Julian Borger is diplomatic editor of The Guardian newspaper in London.

Julian, thanks for joining us.

Mr. BORGER: A pleasure.

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