The Obama administration’s glib, nonchalant response to the Wikileaks security breach reinforces the troubling perception that it doesn’t take national security seriously. While the president himself has said virtually nothing about the scandal, the response of his proxies has been even worse. Attorney General Eric Holder assures us that he’s doing something, but won’t go into specifics. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made light of the issue, joking: “I’m writing a cable about it, which I’m sure you’ll find soon on your closest website.” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs downplayed the impact of Wikileaks, telling Fox and Friends: “We should never be afraid of one guy who popped down thirty-five dollars and bought a web address.”
The consequences of the Wikileaks releases are in fact both significant and dangerous – to the United States, to our allies, to Americans serving on the front lines, and to the foreign operatives who provide us with vital intelligence. Attempts by the administration to downplay the danger that Wikileaks represents smacks of the sort of “political considerations first” philosophy that seems to dominate Obama’s approach to governing. By attempting to minimize the importance of the leaks, the administration believes it can avoid much of the fallout. More than two years after an historic election that elevated him to the highest office in the land, Barack Obama still can’t get out of campaign mode.
In the broadest sense, the president is of course responsible for the leaks. As commander in chief, the buck stops squarely in the Oval Office when national security is in play. Just as Harry Truman was ultimately responsible for intelligence shortcomings that failed to foresee North Korea’s attack in 1950, and just as George W. Bush was ultimately responsible for faulty intelligence regarding Saddam Hussein’s stockpile of WMDs, so is Barack Obama ultimately responsible for the lax security procedures that allowed a lowly private like Bradley Manning to access and disseminate sensitive information.
Yet, the root of Obama’s culpability in the Wikileaks scandal is the same as Truman’s and Bush’s: he put his faith in the military and intelligence professionals that are charged with keeping America secure. As they had in 1950 and 2003, those professionals made mistakes, and President Obama’s real sin is not in failing to anticipate a blunder that he has neither the skills nor training to recognize, but in refusing to recognize the extent of the damage that had been done and to act decisively to minimize that damage.
In the wake of 9-11, the multifaceted American intelligence community recognized that it was much too compartmentalized. Prior to those attacks, the CIA, FBI, NSA and other alphabet agencies jealously guarded their own pieces of the intelligence puzzle. It was realized – far too late to save the World Trade Center – that if those agencies had shared information, we might have understood what Al Qaeda was planning and stopped it. And so, the sharing of intelligence between agencies and the military became all the rage after 9-11. That new paradigm created what Pfc. Bradley Manning described as the “perfect storm.”
Manning had clearance to two key high-security networks: SIPRANET, which manages information classified as “secret,” and JWICS, which deals in “top secret” communications. How could a Pfc have access to two such networks? Because, in the post-9-11 world, even lowly privates were important cogs in the machinery of intelligence, ensuring that important information would continue to flow in the right direction. While both SIPRANET and JWICS were configured to detect and report any unusual pattern when it came to document downloads, neither anticipated massive, unauthorized downloading of e-mail files. That’s how Manning got away with it. He copied the Microsoft e-mail files (designated as *.pst files) and sent them along to Julian Assange and company. Once that was done, Manning erased the server logs that would have exposed his activities.
But for the actions of a twenty-nine year old California hacker by the name of Adrian Lamo, Manning’s traitorous actions would have taken a lot longer to discover. Lamo struck up a friendship with the private over the Internet and, once he realized what Manning was up to, Lamo reporter the Pfc to the authorities. “I am certain that more information would have come out had I not acted. Bradley would have continued compromising computer files,” Lamo said.
Adrian Lamo’s decisive actions to expose Manning stand in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s pathetic response. While a young hacker living on the west coast recognized that Manning and Wikileaks represented a clear and present danger to the security of the United States, the Obama administration whistled in the wind, wishing the crisis away by pretending it didn’t matter. Now that the Wikileaks scandal has hit particularly close to their political home, the president and his staff seem to be slowly awakening to the danger that Julian Assange and his cohorts represent. This may be a case of too little, far too late. While the Obama administration is finally, tepidly attempting to plug the hole in America’s security dike, the tidal wave of sensitive information rushing through the gaps that Manning and his cohorts have exploited might just well be too powerful to stop.