Dec 11, 2013
Freedom Isn’t Free at the State Department
Posted on Oct 3, 2011
By Peter Van Buren
Peter Van Buren, a Foreign Service Officer, spent a year at two bases in Iraq working on reconstruction efforts. His book-length reflection on that experience, “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” was released in late September. TomDispatch editor Tom Engelhardt praised it as destined to become “a classic in the annals of anti-interventionism.” This article was orginally published on TomDispatch.
On the same day that more than 250,000 unredacted State Department cables hemorrhaged out onto the Internet, I was interrogated for the first time in my 23-year State Department career by State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) and told I was under investigation for allegedly disclosing classified information. The evidence of my crime? A posting on my blog from the previous month that included a link to a WikiLeaks document already available elsewhere on the Web.
As we sat in a small, gray, windowless room, resplendent with a two-way mirror, multiple ceiling-mounted cameras, and iron rungs on the table to which handcuffs could be attached, the two DS agents stated that the inclusion of that link amounted to disclosing classified material. In other words, a link to a document posted by who-knows-who on a public website available at this moment to anyone in the world was the legal equivalent of me stealing a Top Secret report, hiding it under my coat, and passing it to a Chinese spy in a dark alley.
The agents demanded to know who might be helping me with my blog (“Name names!”), if I had donated any money from my upcoming book on my wacky year-long State Department assignment to a forward military base in Iraq, and if so to which charities, the details of my contract with my publisher, how much money (if any) I had been paid, and—by the way—whether I had otherwise “transferred” classified information.
Had I, they asked, looked at the WikiLeaks site at home on my own time on my own computer? Every blog post, every Facebook post, and every tweet by every State Department employee, they told me, must be pre-cleared by the Department prior to “publication.” Then they called me back for a second 90-minute interview, stating that my refusal to answer questions would lead to my being fired, never mind the Fifth (or the First) Amendments.
Silly as it seems, such accusations carry a lot of weight if you work for the government. DS can unilaterally, and without any right of appeal or oversight, suspend your security clearance and for all intents and purposes end your career. The agents questioning me reminded me of just that, as well as of the potential for criminal prosecution—and all because of a link to a website, nothing more.
It was implied as well that even writing about the interrogation I underwent, as I am doing now, might morph into charges of “interfering with a government investigation.” They labeled routine documents in use in my interrogation as “Law Enforcement Sensitive” to penalize me should I post them online. Who knew such small things actually threatened the security of the United States? Are these words so dangerous, or is our nation so fragile that legitimate criticism becomes a firing offense?
Let’s think through this disclosure of classified info thing, even if State won’t. Every website on the Internet includes links to other websites. It’s how the Web works. If you include a link to say, a CNN article about Libya, you are not “disclosing” that information—it’s already there. You’re just saying: “Have a look at this.” It’s like pointing out a newspaper article of interest to a guy next to you on the bus. (Careful, though, if it’s an article from The New York Times or The Washington Post. It might quote stuff from WikiLeaks and then you could be endangering national security.)
Security at State: Hamburgers and Mud
Security and the State Department go together like hamburgers and mud. Over the years, State has leaked like an old boot. One of its most hilarious security breaches took place when an unknown person walked into the secretary of state’s outer office and grabbed a pile of classified documents. From the vast trove of missing classified laptops to bugging devices found in its secure conference rooms, from high ranking officials trading secrets in Vienna to top diplomats dallying with spies in Taiwan, even the publicly available list is long and ugly.
Of course, nothing compares to what history will no doubt record as the most significant outpouring of classified material ever, the dump of hundreds of thousands of cables that are now on display on WikiLeaks and its mushroom-like mirror sites. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security (an oxymoron if there ever was one) is supposed to protect our American diplomats by securing State’s secrets, and over time they just haven’t done very well at that.
The State Department and its Bureau of Diplomatic Security never took responsibility for their part in the loss of all those cables, never acknowledged their own mistakes or porous security measures. No one will ever be fired at State because of WikiLeaks—except, at some point, possibly me. Instead, State joined in the federal mugging of Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, the person alleged to have copied the cables onto a Lady Gaga CD while sitting in the Iraqi desert.
That all those cables were available electronically to everyone from the secretary of state to a lowly Army private was the result of a clumsy post-9/11 decision at the highest levels of the State Department to quickly make up for information-sharing shortcomings. Trying to please an angry Bush White House, State went from sharing almost nothing to sharing almost everything overnight. They flung their whole library onto the government’s classified intranet, SIPRnet, making it available to hundreds of thousands of federal employees worldwide. It is usually not a good idea to make classified information that broadly available when you cannot control who gets access to it outside your own organization. The intelligence agencies and the military certainly did no such thing on SIPRnet, before or after 9/11.
State did not restrict access. If you were in, you could see it all. There was no safeguard to ask why someone in the Army in Iraq in 2010 needed to see reporting from 1980s Iceland. Even inside their own organization, State requires its employees to “subscribe” to classified cables by topic, creating a record of what you see and limiting access by justifiable need. A guy who works on trade issues for Morocco might need to explain why he asked for political-military reports from Chile.
Most for-pay porn sites limit the amount of data that can be downloaded. Not State. Once those cables were available on SIPRnet, no alarms or restrictions were implemented so that low-level users couldn’t just download terabytes of classified data. If any activity logs were kept, it does not look like anyone checked them.
A few classified State Department cables will include sourcing, details on from whom or how information was collected. This source data allows an informed reader to judge the veracity of the information; was the source on a country’s nuclear plans a street vendor or a high military officer? Despite the sometimes life-or-death nature of protecting sources (though some argue this is overstated), State simply dumped its hundreds of thousands of cables online unredacted, leaving source names there, all pink and naked in the sun.
Then again, history shows that technical security is just not State’s game, which means the WikiLeaks uproar is less of a surprise in context. For example,in 2006, news reports indicated that State’s computer systems were massively hacked by Chinese computer geeks. In 2008, State data disclosures led to an identity theft scheme only uncovered through a fluke arrest by the Washington, D.C., cops. Before it was closed down in 2009, snooping on private passport records was a popular intramural activity at the State Department, widely known and casually accepted. In 2011, contractors using fake identities appear to have downloaded 250,000 internal medical records of State Department employees, including mine.
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