Washington: The US government on Friday announced steps to clamp down on who can access classified information, seeking to avert another WikiLeaks-scale breach of military documents and diplomatic cables. The presidential order requires US agencies to appoint senior people to prevent and detect breaches and creates a task force to monitor potential wrongdoing by government officials, bureaucrats, diplomats or soldiers handling classified data.
That task force, to be headed by the attorney general and director of national intelligence, will set out government-wide policies to prevent data theft and establish binding standards within a year, the White House said, announcing the plans. Officials familiar with the issue who examined the new anti-leak proposals said most of them were fairly predictable and obvious as a cyber-security response. "The strategic imperative of our efforts has been to ensure that we provide adequate protections to our classified information while at the same time sharing the information with all who reasonably need it to do their jobs," the White House said in a statement.
WikiLeaks' acquisition last year of more than 250,000 State Department cables embarrassed the US government and infuriated officials from Mexico to Italy angry at seeing US diplomats' unvarnished, and often critical, comments about them.
The White House stressed that government bodies have already made it harder for people to copy classified material onto USB sticks or other storage devices, as US Army Private Bradley Manning allegedly did to make off with highly sensitive diplomatic data. "We have limited the numbers of users with removable media permissions and strengthened accountability for violations," the White House said.
Investigators believe WikiLeaks was able to access the troves of Pentagon and State Department documents it made public because of lax security at a military intelligence outpost in Iraq.
Manning, 23, has been charged with downloading more than 150,000 diplomatic cables and leaking at least some of them while working as an intelligence analyst in Iraq. US officials have declined to say whether those cables were the same ones released by WikiLeaks that exposed the inner workings of American diplomacy, including candid assessments of some Arab leaders who were later toppled by popular protests. In an Internet chat with former hacker Adrian Lamo, Manning said he would come into work with music on a recordable CD then erase the music and download data from the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, known as SIPRNet.
Friday's presidential order was the product of months of deliberation by a committee set up by the White House after the WikiLeaks debacle, which Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said had undermined US efforts to work with other countries and threatened America's national security. The committee was headed by Russell Travers, who previously served at the National Counterterrorism Center and is one of the US intelligence community's foremost experts on information sharing.
Travers had been in charge of TIDE, a classified database containing the US government's most comprehensive collection of information on potential terrorists. National security officials said that as one of the government's top experts on information sharing, Travers had the kind of expertise to figure out how to staunch leaks without impeding exchanges of critical intelligence between experts inside the government.
That balancing act is particularly sensitive for Washington in the wake of revelations that US agencies failed to share critical bits of information which, at least in theory, could have led US authorities to disrupt the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. In its announcement on the new precautions, the White House stressed that it wanted to "reinforce the importance of responsible information sharing and not undo all of the significant and important progress we've made in interagency information sharing since 9/11."