Frances Fragos Townsend, CNN contributor and former homeland security advisor to President Bush, gives insight to the “big picture” of the internal military document leak by WikiLeaks.org. Townsend says the intelligence community wants answers but they need to finally learn the lesson that history has repeatedly taught.
CNN: What’s the big picture of the WikiLeaks document dump? How big of a deal is this?
Townsend: We’ve seen an increase in the last couple of years in this country of leaks of classified information. This covers the gamut from financial and intelligence programs to interrogation techniques.
This is a massive dump of classified information. The problem is that you have a single government employee… who makes a judgment about the potential harm from such a leak. We don’t want someone making such a judgment.
This is going to force the executive branch to come up with a system to protect this information. We need a system in place.
In this case we are finding assets and sources in Afghanistan that are identified that could be killed [because of the documents being leaked].
CNN: Why would it be so hard for the Pentagon to know what other documents may be out there that haven’t been released yet?
Townsend: Imagine a system the size of the Library of Congress. People go on from around the world accessing different material. With a password they log on and can access libraries filled with information. So, yeah, you could have access to tons of information. It won’t be until you can identify a suspect- then you can work backwards. They’ll know was it more or less than 90,000 documents. There are so many people downloading material at the same time, first you need to identify the suspect.
There are so many people working legitimately on these networks. We have intelligence experts working on these from Washington, in warzones, from different agencies… for very good reasons we have a large community working on these. They all legitimately have access.
CNN: How many people would you say have access?
Townsend: I wouldn’t even want to speculate.
Townsend: Probably tens of thousands.
CNN: Given the sheer number of documents leaked, what is the likelihood that the leaker was not working alone?
Townsend: It will be interesting to see. It should be pretty straight forward for investigators to find out. In classified systems there’s an audit trail. Did he take this in soft copy on a thumb drive, did he download it, how did he transfer the materials? Investigators will quickly identify that and will answer the question if he acted alone.
He’s a military intelligence expert- it’s possible he could have acted alone but it seems unlikely. If one individual tried to transfer that much data… it should have triggered the system that something’s going on there.
CNN: What kind of reaction are you hearing in Washington?
Townsend: People think it’s a big deal and frankly in the end it’s a crime. It puts everyone at risk. In the intelligence community people want to see this prosecuted.
CNN: How is this going to damage the military? Will we see a reform of procedure from this?
Townsend: In the case of Robert Hanssen, a FBI agent stationed at the State Department, he accessed information. There was a study done about the need for, just because you have security clearance we should also have a system to restrict access to only A. what you need to know and B. we ought to have an audit trail that will ring bells. Someone should look at that.
[In the current case] We have a military intelligence analyst in Iraq. What he was downloading was military intelligence reports in Afghanistan. Frankly… that should have been caught. The question is do they not have that [process in place], was he working on something for someone that would have permitted that access? We need to know more to understand where that systemic failure was.
CNN: What should we learn for the future? What should we take away from this?
Townsend: What we need to do is share the information across agencies.
The lesson is not to restrict info from people who need it; it’s to restrict it from those who don’t need it.
For example, do I need access to information on proliferation of nuclear weapons? No. We ought to not permit me to have access to that and if I do we ought to have a system in place that permits the administrator to ask why I’m accessing that information.
The question we can raise in the media is how come we need to keep learning agency by agency these lessons. Why was it when the FBI learned through Hanssen, and after Webster wrote his report, why is it we didn’t tell all agencies ‘review your procedure?’ This isn’t a lesson that should be limited to the Department of Defense. They need to say we have to implement new rules across the intelligence community and Mr. or Ms. DNI that’s your job.