Monday, June 7, 2010

260,000 Classified Cables Might Be Loose

Here's some bad news. A 22-year old U.S. Army intelligence specialist in Iraq has been arrested for leaking classified information to Wikileaks, which is an internet depository for other people's secrets whose "About Us" page says it should be described as an "open government group," or an "anti-corruption group," or a "transparency group," or simply as a "whistleblower's site."

That's bad news as a general matter but of particular interest to me and, mostly likely, you too, is that among the leaked documents are 260,000 classified State Department cables and other messages that young Bradley Manning downloaded from SIPRNET.

Here are the highlights from's story, U.S. Intelligence Analyst Arrested in Wikileaks Video Probe:

Federal officials have arrested an Army intelligence analyst who boasted of giving classified U.S. combat video and hundreds of thousands of classified State Department records to whistleblower site Wikileaks, has learned.

SPC Bradley Manning, 22, of Potomac, Maryland, was stationed at Forward Operating Base Hammer, 40 miles east of Baghdad, where he was arrested nearly two weeks ago by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. A family member says he’s being held in custody in Kuwait, and has not been formally charged.

Manning was turned in late last month by a former computer hacker with whom he spoke online. In the course of their chats, Manning took credit for leaking a headline-making video of a helicopter attack that Wikileaks posted online in April. The video showed a deadly 2007 U.S. helicopter air strike in Baghdad that claimed the lives of several innocent civilians.

He said he also leaked three other items to Wikileaks: a separate video showing the notorious 2009 Garani air strike in Afghanistan that Wikileaks has previously acknowledged is in its possession; a classified Army document evaluating Wikileaks as a security threat, which the site posted in March; and a previously unreported breach consisting of 260,000 classified U.S. diplomatic cables that Manning described as exposing “almost criminal political back dealings.”

“Hillary Clinton, and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public,” Manning wrote. could not confirm whether Wikileaks received the supposed 260,000 classified embassy dispatches. To date, a single classified diplomatic cable has appeared on the site: Released last February, it describes a U.S. embassy meeting with the government of Iceland. E-mail and a voicemail message left for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange on Sunday were not answered by the time this article was published.

The State Department said it was not aware of the arrest or the allegedly leaked cables. The FBI was not prepared to comment when asked about Manning.

-- snip --

Manning had access to two classified networks from two separate secured laptops: SIPRNET, the Secret-level network used by the Department of Defense and the State Department, and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System which serves both agencies at the Top Secret/SCI level.

This cache of compromised cables has not been posted on Wikileaks so far. Tick ... tick ... tick ...


Update: Here are some perceptive comments from the WaPo's Spy Talk column on the question of why people steal secrets.


Anonymous said...

I can't help but ask, how many classified cables does one have to download before someone notices that you are downloading more than you probably really need for work purposes? Does no one regularly run audits on their users? It sounds like they don't (and if that is the case, I'm flabbergasted).

TSB said...

Manning himself identified the problem very well: ”Weak servers, weak logging, weak physical security, weak counter-intelligence, inattentive signal analysis … a perfect storm.”

By signal analysis, I think he meant what you said - audits that would have detected suspicious activity.

This is a sad story all around.

DiploSearching said...

Does this disclosure rise to the level of treason? Do military branches have dissent channels, and could such an outlet have curbed his enthusiasm to leak classified info without authorization?

His comments referring to posts abroad & diplomats seem rather pointed. I would be interested to know what his past experience with DOS has been (outside of the many emails he has read/downloaded, of course).

TSB said...

I don't believe Manning had any experience with DOS other than what he could get secondhand from reading SIPRNET. He is/was a 22-year old Army intl analyst, which means he had received about one year of advanced training, possibly including cryptoanalysis, after Army basic training. He must have enlisted around age 19, so he wouldn't have had the opportunity yet to, for example, apply to the Foreign Service. He wouldn't have worked with any FSOs, although it's possible he saw a few at FOBs in Iraq.

He was clearly being way over-dramatic with those pointed remarks about DOS cable traffic. Deep, dark, diplomatic secrets that the public needs to learn? They must be keeping all the good cables away from me, since the ones I see aren't anywhere near so interesting.

We'll learn more about his motives as his case gets prosecuted. Right now, I'd bet that he's just talking up a rationalization for his actions. Being a whistleblower is much more admirable than being a disgruntled employee.