Friday, July 20, 2012

A Disquieting Story about Leaks

Al Jazeera English ran a story about the “official” position on leaks being taken by our Department of Defense that left me more than a little nervous. The chilling effect came in the very first sentence:
Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, has ordered senior Pentagon officials to begin monitoring major US news media for disclosures of classified information in an effort to stop the release of government secrets in the wake of a series of high-profile leaks.
I would like to give Panetta the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is not talking about taking intrusive measures towards the operations of these media institutions. Rather, I am willing to assume that “monitoring” means just that, reviewing all of the content that the rest of us get to encounter when we watch the news on television, listen to it on the radio, or read it from either the newspapers or Web pages. What bothers me is the implication that such monitoring is not currently part of Standard Operating Procedure within the Department of Defense.

In my earlier life as a computer scientist, I had only one job that required a security clearance. That “think jar” (as some of us called it, because we felt it was too small to be a think tank) had a Security Officer on staff. He was responsible for such things as reviewing anything submitted for external publication and briefing any researcher planning to travel outside the United States. He was also responsible to writing and distributing a “security handbook,” which every new employee was required to read.

Since this was my first job of this kind, I suppose I had a somewhat escalated sense of diligence. Thus, when I read the sentence about reporting any meeting or planned meeting with a member of the Communist Party of any country, I took it seriously. As a result, when a bunch of us were planning to attend an IEEE conference in Chicago, I asked my project manager if I needed to let the Security Officer know about it. He look wide-eyed and said, “You want clearance for a trip to Chicago?” I replied that Andrey Ershov was one of the keynote speakers, that he was one of Russia’s leading computer scientists, and that, given the opportunity, I would try to corner him with some questions relevant to my current research. My project manager sighed and informed me that such details would probably just aggravate the Security Officer.

I later found out that our project was part of a large scale Army research effort that was also funding a husband-and-wife team of defectors from the Soviet Union. They threw a big party for the Pentagon officials involved with this project in their hotel suite with lots of caviar and freely-flowing vodka. They also invited Ershov. He apparently got very chummy with some of the Pentagon types, who thought he was another defector!

The point of both my anecdote and my frustration with Panetta’s statement is that there is a lot of common knowledge out there that may not only impact our security but also reveal either the presence or the risk of leaks. At a bare minimum, such knowledge would serve as a trigger for more scrupulous investigation. Monitoring that common knowledge is labor intensive, but one would have thought that the Pentagon could draw upon a labor pool to manage the task. If they cannot (or if they can but have not bothered to do so), then we should all have cause for concern. To state the obvious, homeland security begins at home; and, if the Department of Defense wants us all to be vigilant, they should be the ones to set a good example.

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