Senators question how WikiLeaks breach happened

The Defense Department was more focused on rapid information sharing than on security, officials say

Senators question how WikiLeaks obtained thousands of classified U.S. documents

U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning allegedly was able to copy hundreds of thousands of classified documents from a U.S. Department of Defense network because military officials were more focused on getting critical information to troops quickly than on security, witnesses told a U.S. Senate committee Thursday.

U.S. intelligence and defense officials took a risk in not locking down the classified information in war zones, said Thomas Ferguson, principal deputy under secretary for intelligence at the U.S. Department of Defense. The DOD allowed soldiers to transfer data between its own systems and allied networks so they could "rapidly" respond to conditions in Iraq, he said.

"The focus in the [Iraq] theater was speed and agility," he said. "We took that risk to allow not just Private Manning, but many people who are serving there, to move at that pace."

Manning, who worked in intelligence support in Iraq, allegedly gave hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks during 2010. He was arrested last May and is awaiting trial on more than 20 charges.

Manning's access to DOD and U.S. Department of State documents came from a "complete breakdown of command authority," said Senator Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican.

Brown and other members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee questioned how the DOD could allow a low-level private to allegedly burn hundreds of documents from the DOD's Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet) onto disks from his work computer without being detected. "That baffles me," said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican.

In 2007, Congress passed a law requiring military and intelligence agencies to install audit capabilities and access controls on classified systems, Collins noted. "Those technologies ... are not new," she said. "They're widely used. The serious cyber risk associated with removable media devices, such as thumb drives, has been known for many years."

The DOD began installing host-based security systems on its computers in the U.S in 2008, but it was more difficult to install those security measures on computers in Iraq because of the variety of equipment, Ferguson said. "A lot of the systems there are, for lack of a technical term, cobbled together," he said. "It's sort of a family of systems there."

Collins also asked how Manning had access to classified State Department diplomatic cables about countries that weren't involved in the Iraq war. Several years ago, the DOD asked for State Department documents to be included on SIPRNet as a resource for military members, said Patrick Kennedy, under secretary for management at the State Department.

"We believe, in the interest of information sharing, that it would be a grave mistake and danger to national security for the State Department to try to define" which workers in other agencies should see the diplomatic analysis, Kennedy said. The State Department shares diplomatic information with 65 other agencies, he said.

"We provide this information to the other agency," he added. "The other agency, then, takes on the responsibility of controlling access by their people."

DOD officials told senators they are working to prevent a similar data breach from happening again. The DOD has disabled data transfers to removable media on most computers in combat zones, said Teresa Takai, the DOD's CIO. About 12 percent of computers in combat zones retain the capability to transfer data to removable media, for "operational reasons," she said.

The DOD has put strict controls on the computers that still have removable media capabilities, she added. The DOD is also working with other agencies on an insider threat program, she said.

While senators raised concerns about the breach, they also questioned critics who have called for less information sharing between U.S. defense and intelligence agencies. A lack of information sharing between agencies aided the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists, said Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent.

There are continued problems with agencies not sharing information, he added. Before the November 2009 shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation had information about the ties of suspect Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army major, to radical Islam, Lieberman noted.

Lieberman said he fears that agencies may be reluctant to share information after the WikiLeaks scandal. "To me, this is like putting an axe to a problem that requires a scalpel," he said. "We can and must prevent another WikiLeaks without also enabling federal agencies -- in fact, perhaps, compelling federal agencies -- to reverse course and return to the pre-9/11 culture of hoarding information."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

This story, "Senators question how WikiLeaks breach happened" was originally published by IDG News Service .

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