By William Tucker
In 1985, CIA employee Aldrich Ames gave the Soviets the names of ten individuals working in Soviet intelligence that were on the payroll of the CIA and FBI. Contrary to good spycraft all ten assets identified were executed within two weeks of receiving the information Ames provided. The problems presented by an insider gone bad are readily apparent – we will get to that in a moment – but the reason field intelligence reports are often classified is because they can contain names of sources. Revealing the name of a source is problem enough, but in the wake of the Wikileaks disclosure, entitled Afghan War Logs, the entire network of US intelligence sources in Afghanistan is now at risk. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently stated that his movement is reviewing the document to learn the names of Afghans that have been providing intelligence to the US.
Sources are the lifeblood of intelligence. For the US to learn about other nations it must talk with people in those nations just as much as it must use other forms of collection to build a profile of the country in question. Analysts require information from reliable sources in order to make accurate assessments about a nation’s capabilities or intentions. Without good sources intelligence stops working. Of course the Taliban understand this and it is not a coincidence that Taliban leader Mullah Omar has given permission to kill any Afghan known to be aiding the US effort in Afghanistan. In all likelihood these individuals identified from the Wikileaks disclosure are living on borrowed time.
We would be remiss if we didn’t discuss how this leak occurred in the first place. Back in April the Wikileaks website released a leaked video that allegedly showed US soldiers in Iraq killing two Reuter’s reporters. Shortly after the release of the video a US Army soldier had been arrested after bragging about being Wikileaks source. Furthermore, the soldier claimed to have released a substantial amount of classified documents which many believe to be the Afghan War Logs. This is where a good security and counterintelligence program comes into play as they help mitigate the possibility of disclosure. In this case it certainly appears as if both were lacking. We often obsess over foreign spies infiltrating the US intelligence apparatus, but we must keep in mind the insider threat is perhaps the most dangerous.
The release of these documents cannot be undone and damage to the sources named in these documents cannot be overstated. However, we can learn from this experience. First off, we give intelligence analysts too much freedom combing through intelligence related databases. Access is compartmentalized for a reason and if an analyst needs access to information outside of their area of responsibility a supervisor can provide that access after determining need to know. Security and counterintelligence officers must check database access more frequently and look for anomaly’s such as accessing information for which a need to know does not exist. An excellent example is the espionage case of Walter and Gwendolyn Myers who were arrested last year on charges of spying for Cuba. Walter Myers was a senior intelligence analyst for the State Department focusing on Europe; however an audit of his computer after his arrest found he spent most of his time reading documents pertaining to Cuba. These are indicators that help security and counterintelligence personnel disrupt illicit activity.
Perhaps another way that these types of disclosures can be prevented in the future would be the declassification of material no longer considered sensitive. A review of the documents show that simple redaction and public release would have been sufficient since most of the documents do nothing more than reinforce what the Bush and Obama administrations have been telling the public over the last few years. Tracking classified documents is not an easy task. Indeed reviewing and declassifying documents is not an easy task either; however removing unnecessary documents is absolutely vital to a successful security program.
While the suspect was not recruited nor harbored any sympathy for the Taliban his actions have had the same result as past espionage cases in harming US national security. It is true that the government did not adequately protect information it had deemed sensitive, but it is also true that the suspect violated the law in releasing the documents without proper authorization. Of course Wikileaks shares some of the blame for not properly vetting the documents prior to release. Wikileaks claims that they tried to contact the government for help, but that is not an adequate excuse as there are numerous former government officials with the expertise that could have redacted the source names. As always there are many parties with which to find fault, but we shouldn’t squander the lessons that can be learned from this episode.