Besieged by a barrage of WikiLeaks revelations, the State Department on Tuesday shut down all access to its secret government documents for fear that they could be stolen and posted on the Internet.
The move signaled increased concern over how a quarter-million sensitive diplomatic cables could be spirited away, apparently by a 22-year-old private first class who, according to the British Guardian newspaper, saved the data onto a Lady Gaga CD.
Knowledgeable foreign-policy experts found the disclosures to be rather pedestrian. But the scope and breadth of the leaks, as well as the global diplomatic repercussions, sent the State Department reeling.
Spokesman P.J. Crowley said the decision to block access to documents will continue until a fix can be found for what he termed "weaknesses in the system that have become evident because of this leak.”
The scope of the security lapse is in some ways unprecedented. The German Der Spiegel magazine wrote: “Never before in history has a superpower lost control of such vast amounts of such sensitive information -- data that can help paint a picture of the foundation upon which U.S. foreign policy is built.
“Never before has the trust America's partners have in the country been as badly shaken. Now, their own personal views and policy recommendations have been made public -- as have America's true views of them.”
The State Department’s action will cut off access to files classified as “secret.” Ordinarily, some 3 million federal employees have access to them.
If other agencies follow suit, and the restrictions continue for an extended period, national security experts worry it could have profound implications in the war against terror.
For the first time, the leak indicates that the post-9/11 dictum of widespread intelligence sharing may leave the United States correspondingly more vulnerable to espionage and breaches of security.
“The whole post-911 mantra was the need to share, the need to share, the need to share,” says Heritage Foundation foreign-policy expert James Carafano. “All that is going to be great, until some share gives up to an al-Qaida operative all the intel he got from DHS.
“This was going to happen eventually,” he tells Newsmax. “… The need to share is far more important than all the [intelligence] compromises.”
Carafano and other experts tell Newsmax that the concerted effort to distribute intelligence broadly across a large number of security agencies -- one of the key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission – inevitably increases security risks.
Mark Lowenthal, the president of the Reston, Va.-based Intelligence & Security Academy, tells Newsmax that it is impossible to share information across silos without security issues.
“The mantra here is share, share, share,” says the former assistant director of central intelligence for analysis and production. “We’ve gone from need to know, to need to share, to responsibility to provide -- which is the current metric that was created by [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell, and not rolled back by either [Director of National Intelligence Dennis] Blair or [DNI James] Clapper. So if you want people to share and provide, then this all has to be available.”
While there are physical methods of preventing staff from bringing CDs or thumb drives to their workplace, Lowenthal says that enforcing those restrictions are onerous.
“Clearly they’ve had a breakdown,” says Lowenthal. “Downloading 250,000 documents is no small issue. That’s a lot of downloading, and the fact that nobody caught him is a bit embarrassing.”
But stopping leaks is difficult, when so many people have access to the information, he says.
“If you want to roll it back to where we have strict compartmentalization, you can do that,” says Lowenthal. “Now we’re back in the situation where everyone is in these little silos, and nobody knows what everybody else is doing. This is the problem with the world we live in – those are your choices and they aren’t pretty.”
Lowenthal, like Carafano, would rather err on the side of stopping the next major terrorist attack.
But Michael Scheuer, the former CIA veteran who headed the agency's secret unit dedicated to tracking down Osama bin Laden, blames a pervasive culture in Washington where people at the very top of the government are allowed to leak with impunity.
He cites the string of books by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, known for disclosing sensitive information provided by high-level officials.
“You know it would be something a lower-level official would get fired for, or reprimanded, or suspended,” he says. “And so we live in a culture at the moment that is very lawless in terms of national defense, at least as far as I’m concerned.”
But in the case of WikiLeaks, Scheuer slams the Obama administration for not cracking down on the illegal possession of stolen materials.
“The president of the United States and the attorney general of the United States took no action to stop it, and it seems to me this is a clear chain of criminal activity that has very little to do with the First Amendment.
“It is trafficking in stolen property,” Scheuer says. “When the president weeps his crocodile tears about this is a bad thing happening, clearly he and his administration maybe didn’t want it to happen, but really had no objection to it happening.”
If a thief gave diamonds or electronic equipment to another party that tried to then sell it, the Justice Department would file criminal charges without hesitation, Scheuer says.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has stated that the Justice Department and Pentagon are conducting “an active, criminal investigation” to determine if charges can be filed against Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who posted the documents.
But Scheuer believes the administration has done little more than complain, in order to avoid run-ins with the ACLU and the mainstream media.
“Clearly this administration in particular is in the pocket of the ACLU,” Scheuer tells Newsmax. “They have access to the White House, from what I’ve heard from different people, at all times. But generally speaking, I don’t think the Bush administration was much more eager to take on the media and First Amendment issues.”
The worst impact from the WikiLeaks disclosures, he says, is that senior officials will no longer feel free to express their candid opinions.
It will have a “chilling impact on diplomats in the field saying what they think,” Scheuer warns.
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