WikiLeaks: we’re forgetting Bradley Manning
Updated on 07 September 2022
While the world is talking WikiLeaks, I cannot fail to think: what if even more classified information is compromised? Is technology failing us? What we should question is not simply what has been leaked, but how it has happened…
The Guardian describes how a young soldier, Bradley Manning, was the person who allegedly downloaded the confidential information on a memory stick:
‘The US military believes it knows where the leak originated. A soldier, Bradley Manning, 22, has been held in solitary confinement for the last seven months and is facing a court martial in the new year. The former intelligence analyst is charged with unauthorised downloads of classified material while serving on an army base outside Baghdad. He is suspected of taking copies not only of the state department archive, but also of video of an Apache helicopter crew gunning down civilians in Baghdad, and hundreds of thousands of daily war logs from military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq…
‘It was childishly easy, according to the published chatlog of a conversation Manning had with a fellow-hacker. “I would come in with music on a CD-RW labelled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’… erase the music… then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing… [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s Telephone while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.” He said that he “had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months”.’
Someone, somehow, is bound to have access to confidential information. The point is, why are we shifting all the blame to WikiLeaks? The website would not have been able to leak the documents if that someone, entrusted with access to these documents, did not hand over the documents to WikiLeaks.
We wouldn’t be looking at the whole picture if we said that the source of the problem was WikiLeaks. What WikiLeaks is doing is facilitating the exposure of confidential information, and providing a host on which the public can access the documents and rummage through them. And, as The Economist Democracy in America blog post states, to avoid any legal repercussions, Julian Assange placed his servers in a number of countries with generous whistleblower-protection laws.
We might have expected WikiLeaks to be moral or conscientious about the documents it receives, especially in view of the grave consequences a spill can lead to. Not to mention the damage it can do to the very nature of diplomacy and negotiations (which DiploFoundation director Jovan Kurbalija explains very well in his blog post). But we should also turn our attention to individuals like Bradley Manning, who was entrusted with a huge responsibility, and breached his line of duty.
Why should a person in that position of trust find it childishly easy to download that huge amount of files? Referring to a different, but very similar incident (the leak of 91,000 documents from the Pentagon) that took place in July, the Christian Science Monitor quoted John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org: ‘He was basically able to put the Library of Alexandria on a thumb drive and walk out the door. That’s the part that I find distressing. I just don’t see how a well-designed system would allow that to happen.’
The CS Monitor quoted Mr Pike: the music industry and Google Books seem to have better digital image control than the US military in this instance. Google notices if you’re downloading large numbers of PDF book files at a time, he said.
So isn’t the system well-designed enough? As soon as the leaks were confirmed, The Guardian asked a state department spokesperson why such sensitive material was posted on a network accessible to thousands of government employees: ‘The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath revealed gaps in intra-governmental information sharing. Since the attacks of 9/11, the US government has taken significant steps to facilitate information sharing. These efforts were focused on giving diplomatic, military, law enforcement and intelligence specialists quicker and easier access to more data to more effectively do their jobs.’
It seems that we’ve gone from one extreme to the other: from non-disclosure to wide-ranging information sharing. I am therefore somewhere in between what The Economist blogger B.G. states at the start of the blog ‘WikiLeaks is a legal innovation, not a tech one’ (‘Many of the posts I’ve read about WikiLeaks, here and elsewhere, have expressed a certain technological fatalism. For example, Andrew Sullivan writes that the ‘culprit’ is the internet; downloads can be shifted among servers, distributing responsibility… I think we are placing too much emphasis on this aspect of WikiLeaks’s operation’) and what the blogger continues to state later (‘Julian Assange, though he is technically brilliant, is not a technological innovator. He is a legal innovator’).
Yes, B.G. we are truly placing too much emphasis on this aspect of WikiLeak’s operation. And no one can disagree with the fact that Assange is a legal innovator. But the culprit, really, is that individual who, entrusted with access to such documents, transmitted the same information to an unauthorised source. And an equally big culprit is the way technology has been designed: that very same system which was re-designed to allow better communication among officials, but at the same time allowed one individual to download a huge amount of confidential data without anyone, especially the system itself, noticing it.