07.27.10

4 Burning Questions After WikiLeaks

Who was minding the store when 92,000 classified military logs were purloined? Retired Army Col. Ken Allard analyzes this and three other troubling conundrums—including whether the leaker should pay the ultimate price.

It’s a bad time for secrets. Just last week, The Washington Post went Pulitzer-prospecting with a 20,000-word exposé on the post-9/11 security establishment, reporting that almost a million people hold top-secret security clearances. One of those people apparently provided 92,000 classified military logs about the Afghan-Pakistani war to the blog network WikiLeaks. Unlike an ordinary spy or thief, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claims higher motives, saying he hopes the release of these secrets will usher in “the age of the whistleblower.”

Why in a time of war should the media establishment be allowed to decide that they can obey the espionage laws no better than they observe the Ten Commandments?

But maybe the next Pulitzer should go to the investigative journalist who can shed light on some basic and deeply troubling questions:

1. Who was minding the store when 92,000 documents were purloined, Big Brother or Big Momma? From Burn After Reading to Salt, Hollywood thrives on the myth of the all-knowing, all-pervasive Big Brother. The reality is slightly different: The leading suspect in the leak investigation is neither Mata Hari nor James Bond but a baby-faced 22-year-old Army private from Potomac, Maryland. Left unexplained is how such a junior-level intelligence analyst was allowed apparently unlimited access to this secret treasure trove. Were his supervisors asleep at the switch? The intelligence officer’s most basic responsibility is ensuring that his junior analysts get the need-to-know information required to do their jobs—and nothing else. As at Fort Hood, we now need to find out what went terribly wrong here, and at the most basic levels.

2. How good is American counterintelligence when an entire archive of classified information can be copied and transmitted from a war zone? We only learned after Fort Hood that the shooter had been communicating routinely with a radical Islamic cleric in Yemen. For all practical purposes, off-duty soldiers on American bases enjoy the same Internet access as their civilian counterparts. But in a war zone, where the leaks apparently originated, all communications infrastructures operate under military control. Just as any employer has a right, even the obligation, to check on employee email usage, our counterintelligence services have the duty to monitor the communications of soldiers in a combat zone. This is doubly true of soldiers, like junior intelligence analysts, required to handle large amounts of sensitive information. Why were those communications pathways not monitored here, especially when large packets of information were apparently being sent outside government channels? As one retired general told me privately, “This wasn’t a leak, it was a deluge!”

3. What U.S. security safeguards now need to be adjusted? Today’s information technology, from the thumb drive to the iPhone, has leapfrogged all traditional safeguards. During the Cold War, I ran counterespionage cases that seemed like spy novels: miniature cameras and documents smuggled across heavily guarded international borders. The stakes: a sensitive document or maybe a war plan. Those games now seem like child’s play, when insider access combined with the Internet allow entire archives to cross borders with the touch of a “send” button. Nor are the available defenses very promising, although Georgetown’s Paul Pillar is correct when he argues that need to know must now be balanced against “need to protect.” Digital document tracing and procedural overhauls also help, but not much. So at what point must security ultimately rely on the enforcement of wartime sanctions? Like the Fort Hood shooter, the leaker turned on his brothers. The harder questions: Will we give this soldier his day in court? And if he is convicted, will we demand the ultimate penalty?

4. If we’re really at war, what are the responsibilities of the First Amendment and the Fourth Estate? The espionage law that I once was sworn to enforce carries obligations and penalties that apply equally to all Americans. Our Founders were warriors who knew from their own experience that spies, even more than snipers, cost lives. But today the “public’s right to know” has become a secular sacrament that trumps every lesser concern. From print, the blogosphere, to electronic blathergab, the media is complicit in glorifying freelancing that consciously subverts defense policy that lesser mortals defend with their lives. But why in a time of war should the media establishment be allowed to decide that they can obey the espionage laws no better than they observe the Ten Commandments? I am not naïve enough to think that this White House will ever go after a media outlet, with the obvious exception of Fox News. But in this case, they damned well should. Maybe Elena Kagan will even have the deciding vote.

Colonel Ken Allard (U.S. Army, Ret.) is a draftee who eventually served on the West Point faculty, as Dean of the National War College and as a NATO peacekeeper in Bosnia. He wrote the military review of the U.S. engagement in Somalia. His most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War, is a memoir of his 10 years as an on-air military analyst with NBC News.