NEW ORLEANS — The recent release of hundreds of thousands of classified documents on the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may cause the Pentagon to backtrack on the progress it has made in sharing data with allies, a top U.S. military intelligence official said Nov. 4.
The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) is leading a task force to review information security following the two largest data leaks in U.S. history by an international whistleblower organization, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, director of the DIA, said at the GeoInt 2010 Symposium here.
The website WikiLeaks.org in July released 77,000 classified documents that it had obtained on the war in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates condemned the leak and said while it did not reveal significant intelligence information, it endangered U.S. troops by detailing their tactics, techniques and procedures on the battlefield and also called into question the United States’ ability to secure its sensitive information.
Then in October, WikiLeaks published nearly 400,000 classified Iraq war records documenting civilian deaths and the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners by Iraqi soldiers and police. U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley E. Manning in July was charged with leaking classified documents and videos to WikiLeaks and is awaiting a military trial.
The incidents highlight a delicate and complex issue that the military is grappling with, Burgess said.
“At the end of the day, we must strive to achieve a balanced collection posture, one in which each discipline strengthens and reinforces another while collectively minimizing risk. However, not all risks are external. Some occur within our very own lifelines,” he said.
“If one alleged individual with a thumb drive or a CD burner can vacuum up thousands of documents from a shared drive and dump them onto the Internet for anyone to pick through, and with no hope, absolutely none, of getting that toothpaste back in the tube, we as a community face some troubling implications,” Burgess continued.
The leaked documents identified Afghans who have cooperated with the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, putting them in danger of Taliban reprisal. These individuals must be protected, Burgess said.
With 46 nations contributing troops to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, the United States has been more open in sharing its intelligence data on the battlefield. Burgess said that while this data sharing has been a tremendous benefit for joint forces, a downside has become apparent — one that was perhaps inevitable. As a result, he said, the pendulum may have to swing back toward data security.
“We have to build safeguards into our intelligence systems to prevent this from happening again,” Burgess said. “But how do we do that without rolling back the progress in information sharing? How do we properly react without overreacting? Where do we draw the line? How do we keep pushing the incredible power of [geospatial intelligence] and other intelligence to our customers, especially to the lowest levels where it makes a real difference, without opening ourselves up to WikiLeaks 2, 3 and 4?
“We’re asking ourselves those questions right now. They are tough questions.”
The technical aspects of ensuring better data security are not difficult, he said. Tripwires can be built into systems that detect when massive downloads occur or when people attempt to access data on shared networks who are not entitled to that information. But serious implications will arise from becoming more restrictive with our information, Burgess said.
“The technical piece isn’t hard,” he said. “It’s easy compared to making sure we understand the second- and third-order effects that will come when we tighten up our system. Not so much the effects on our own people, serious as they are, but rather the effects on the troops, commanders and policymakers depending on the [geospatial intelligence, human intelligence], counterintelligence and analytical products that we provide.
“This is a tough issue for us, and it will require some tough calls. There won’t be any easy answers, and not all stakeholders at the end of the day will be pleased.”