The government can't do much, from a technical standpoint, to thwart the inappropriate interception of classified information by internal personnel -- without imposing controls that would stifle information sharing, former Justice Department officials say.
In the aftermath of the latest release of secret government documents on the WikiLeaks website, the challenge of containing sensitive data while fostering intergovernmental collaboration looms larger than ever. The hundreds of thousands of pages of materials posted on the website over the weekend include secret State Department cables detailing sometimes blunt and pointed diplomatic conversations with foreign governments.
Former national security officials say deploying software to scan for unauthorized transmission of private data will not restrain people bent on exposing data. Rather than using cyber defenses, they say, the government should take action on the front end to alter the behavior of human beings.
"How does this one guy have access to all this?" asked Dan Gallington, former deputy counsel for intelligence policy at the Justice Department. "Well if he did, he shouldn't have. What's the corrective action with that?" Gallington was referring to the alleged source of the data leaks, Pfc. Bradley Manning. "Because we're talking about electronic transmission, one could make the point that the cat's already out of the bag as far as these documents go," he added.
Gallington, now a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a technology and national security think tank, expects a bipartisan push to make it illegal for anyone to publish state secrets. "This latest episode might be just the incentive necessary for Congress to do that," he said. "We're the only democracy in the world that does not have some kind of official secrets act."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the disclosures could endanger diplomats and U.S. intelligence staff, as well as jeopardize relationships with international officials and opposition leaders. "President Obama supports responsible, accountable and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal," he said. "By releasing stolen and classified documents, WikiLeaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals."
Other security experts agreed it's nearly impossible to suppress information that has escaped classified networks and entered the public domain. The diplomatic cables were transmitted over a restricted internal Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRnet), which has few connections to the Internet.
"You can try things like banning the use of external devices," said Jessica R. Herrera-Flanigan, former staff director of the House Homeland Security Committee and former senior counsel for Justice's computer crime arm. But "you have the human factor that you can't avoid if you're relying on people to help you."
Increasingly, anti-terrorism and foreign relations activities depend on instant access to information that is scattered across multiple government offices and agencies.
The government can try "taking away the disk drive, taking away thumb drives, and say, 'We're only going to give certain information to certain people,'" but that will not deter people intent on stealing U.S. government information, said Herrera-Flanigan, now a partner at the Monument Policy Group, a consulting firm. She likened virtual networks to physical federal facilities. "You can see who is coming in and out of the building, but you can't control what people inside the building are going to do."
Senate committee leaders seem conflicted on how to influence government employees' behavior. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, urged the Obama administration -- "both on its own and in cooperation with other responsible governments around the world -- to use all legal means necessary to shut down WikiLeaks before it can do more damage by releasing additional cables. . . . This is a balancing act that the American people themselves ultimately control through our democratically elected representatives and our institutions," Lieberman said. "What WikiLeaks is doing is to short-circuit this entire democratic process -- claiming for itself the exclusive, unilateral and unchecked power to decide what should and shouldn't be made public."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has not commented on this specific WikiLeaks disclosure. He has been a champion of open government, but has always maintained that national security interests must be weighed as well, his staffers said on Monday.