You want to fix leaks? Change the Plumbing.

It seems we have had a deluge of intelligence scandals over the past few years, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden currently being the most dramatic and visible.  For those of you who actively don’t pay attention to these things, Private Manning dumped hundreds of thousands of pieces of classified and sensitive material to the website Wikileaks in 2011.  Wikileaks then disseminated most of this material, much of it showing the inner-workings of international diplomacy between the US and other nations.  The most disturbing images were from a video of a US attack helicopter that mistook some journalists for enemy combatants, with deadly results.


I worked in Air Force intelligence and it attracts an extremely smart if sometimes very eccentric bunch of individuals.  From people who rarely showered and probably had Aspergers to the Wiccans and serial LARPers. I even went to training with 2 people who eventually had gender reassignment surgery.  This is not laying judgement.  I will probably never work in such a diverse environment of people again – and it’s one of the things I miss the most about my service in the military.  All of this is to say that the nature of intelligence work needs people who naturally think outside of the norm.  Good analysts require this trait if they are to put together a cohesive picture of what his happening in the world from many disparate pieces of evidence.  This same trait however often does not conform with the military mantra of conformity and “shut up and color” that is used throughout the regime.


My initial, non-professional, assessment of Bradley Manning is that he is a troubled individual.  Gender identity issues aside, Manning was a young man whose father wanted him to have some direction and suggested he join the Army.  It was not a good fit.  Manning’s blanket military clearance gave him far more than his “need-to-know” would warrant.  Combine this with Manning’s depression and dissatisfaction with the way the Army was running the war and this opens up the proverbial can-o-worms.


Recently Edward Snowden, a Booze-Allen-Hamilton contractor, leaked the existence of disturbing NSA and British programs (PRISM and Tempora) that targeted US and internation citizens’ private data.  Many of us in the public are at least semi-aware of how the era “Big Data” is changing the face of business and consumers.  Increasingly, companies value our personal data over actual transactions.  Lov’em or hat’em but that’s why we have so many “free” online services and games.  We tacitly or explicitly (when we don’t read the terms of agreement) agree to share more private information about ourselves than any populace in history.  And largely, we are ok with this. 


I think this is because the imperfect understanding is that most of this information is being driven by capitalism and so, we believe, it is being used to better market products to us.  Many of us, myself included, have decided this is an annoying, but ultimately bearable sacrifice for the power and convenience of having access to software and data at little to no outright expense.  The integration of gmail/google calendar and other services, especially with mobile, has literally changed how I manage my busy schedule.


However all of this data collection and sharing has an extra, more insidious, cost when the government gets involved.  Since 9/11, the government has understandably been at war trying to prevent another attack on US soil.  No one would argue that we should not do everything possible to try to stave off such attacks, especially if these attacks involve weapons of mass destruction.


However, in a country like the US, which supposedly values freedom and right to privacy, programs that violate both of these values should always be vigorously debated and be transparent.  Having secret courts approve blanket warrants to gather US citizens cell-phone/email data (just some of what the NSA programs do) is NOT consistent with our values as a country.


I don’t know how much material damage Bradley Manning’s leak had on National Security, a term so general that it could mean basically anything.  It no doubt had an effect politically, domestically and internationally.  This will affect policy in the future, but it is unclear how that future might have been different if the leaks had not taken place.  I hope it did not lead to any deaths or captures of people in sensitive positions around the world, but we may never know if that is the case anyway.  In the Snowden case, still unfolding, I am glad that his leak is causing a national dialogue about this issue of privacy/security.  It is one thing if the people approve of certain measures to safeguard their privacy and quite another when we have to rely on the assurance from politicians that they are not abusing their authority.


But all this is leading to a larger point and one I am more qualified to answer.  I don’t think Manning and Snowden are traitors.  Some do.  But I don’t think either of these individuals consciously betrayed their country.  They were misguided, especially in Manning’s case and they both should probably go to jail since they knowingly and dramatically broke their agreements of secrecy.  Snowden, who is a more educated individual seemed initially to be more methodical in his leaking, but his subsequent country hopping, from Hong Kong to Russia has called both his intelligence and judgement into question in my mind.  But demonizing them as traitorous spies is a distraction from the real issue.




The rash of leaks has shown that there is a problem in the intelligence infrastructure itself that such low level analysts and technical contractors can do such broad and widespread damage to the system.  The government bears equal responsibility and culpability in the types of leaks that have occurred.  How could the government allow a low level analyst, with no higher education/training/experience to put any of these pieces of information in a context that would matter, to have access to such a broad swath of very sensitive knowledge.  Bradley Manning, while probably entitled to at least a SECRET level clearance, should NEVER had access to 90% ( a made up percentage admittedly ) or more of what he leaked.  Most (diplomatic cables? Really? ) had little to no bearing on his job.  His clearance merely gave him blanket access to whole networks of data that have no way to handle “need-to-know” permission.  This is a problem with EVERY person granted a clearance, nearly everyone in the military and many contractors. 


Need-to-know has become a joke in practice that only the most secretive of programs can stand muster.  Combine this with the already prevelant bias to OVER classify every document that passes through intelligence hands and classification itself has lost all meaning.  The government, by trying to protect every possible secret has given birth to a system that is chaotic and too unwieldy to manage.  Snowden and Manning are inevitable products of a broken system that needs to change.


What fundamentally needs to change is this:  The government should embrace leaks.  Yes. I said it.  In the government’s hasty knee-jerk response to demonize and prosecute Manning and Snowden they have only exacerbated and distracted from the real problem – the system itself.  The government has created an atmosphere of distrust and fear.  This is what led Snowden to flee the states and into the hands of our enemies – whether intentionally or not.   What has followed is a diplomatic/intelligence nightmare of epic proportions.  Snowden will forever be a criminal and a pawn of foreign governments to use as shield against the US.


But what if the system encouraged leaking?  Controlled leaking, I mean.  Why shouldn’t the military and intelligence infrastructure actually encourage its members to question and have their concerns addressed?  How else, in a democracy, should this system work?  While not easy to implement and understandably a culture shift from the current paradigm, it would allow concerned parties, who normally would not go to such extreme measures, an avenue to address their concerns in a private and controlled way.  Is it really better that Ed Snowden thought it was better to secretly obtain information about these programs and flee the country into hands unknown?  Unless he really was a spy, this is a case that the government needs to make sure never happens again.  It is hard enough to guard against ACTUAL spies.



The second part of this solution is to fix the classification system.  This will be a MASSIVE undertaking, likely involving billions of documents and trillions of pieces of data.  But even if it is just a NEW policy and only affects NEW information, it will be well worth the investment.


Ultimately, Snowden and Manning are most likely well-intentioned individuals with various levels of bad judgement.  Don’t let that distract from the issue of the very real problem of the government and how it treats its people and its secrets.  In the conversations we have in the future about foreign/domestic policy, let’s not forget about the system that allow these leaks to happen in the most injurious manner possible.  Let’s create a system that is transparent except for the secrets that must be kept.  It will be much more manageable and we will have to rely much less on the goodwill and questionable smarts of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.