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.



9 Replies to “You want to fix leaks? Change the Plumbing.”

  1. I wanted to add a comment about Snowden’s leaks that was outside the main article. The outrage domestically and internationally to the spying done on other governments shows a fundamental naivety when it comes to how things work in international politics and intelligence. EVERYONE spies on EVERYONE else. This may not be the way it SHOULD be and we can even have a conversation about what we should allow and not allow. What we SHOULD NOT do is pretend that the outrage from any European or certain former soviet nation is anything other than false outrage used for diplomatic purposes to bludgeon the US on the international stage. Really Russia? YOU are outraged by the US’s policies? Give me a break. If Snowden confined his leaks to just the NSA programs and stayed in the US, I would have had more respect for him. Just maybe his leaks will lead to a more open and honest international community, but I doubt it. As it stands, his leaks only hurt the US and his interests. Note: I’m not calling him a traitor. Just a person with too much access and too little context or sense to be responsible with the information he has.

    1. I was going to make the exact same point, MythosBK. The international community’s response to the OUTRAGE of intelligence collecting aimed at them is both disingenuous and opportunistic. We all know how the game is played by now, so it’s also unsurprising, however, it is one of the things about politics (international and domestic) that never ceases to annoy me.

      Your main point is also well taken. I, for one, never assumed that Snowden had either intelligence or good judgement, only access and motive. Neither intelligence nor good judgement are prerequisites for accomplishing a leak of the type he pulled off… which is exactly your point.

  2. Here are a few things which you may choose to take into consideration:

    1.) The larger the number of people in a particular organization, the lower its ability is to control organize its membership. Low intelligence in large groups is not a coincidence, nor is it something that may be changed by forcibly instituting blanket policies. Neither may the culture of a group be changed in such a way, because it is the culture of a group which determines its policies, not the other way around. This type of stupidity is systemic and unchangeable.

    2.) The only way to keep a secret is to control not only access to the secret itself, but access to peripheral information in increasingly wider circles around that secret. If I have a secret, “A”, and the information contained in A is related to some event, “B”, then the event B does not exist in a vacuum. There will always be indicators, or ripple effects, which the event B leaves behind. From some small subset of these indicators, it is often possible to derive the original event B, and then surmise the contents of A. This is a large part of the reasoning behind blanket security theory. Everything is secret unless it is critical for it to be known.

    3.) The logical and ethical framework which provides the premises in your article is entirely incompatible with and unrelated to the perspective which leads to clandestine activities in the first place. Your article anthropomorphizes the government, making it into a conscious entity, with a sense of vindictiveness, which it is not. A government is not a person. A corporation is not a person. These institutions are driven by cultural policy making mechanisms whose priorities are entirely different from yours. If the government were a reasoning animal, its calculus might look something like this: “Snowden’s leak cost $N, which is well within expected tolerances. The next required step is prosecution to the fullest extent of the law, per policy requirements. Insert righteous indignation here.”

    1. You make some great points Arik. I think it’s important to see that there are some “easy wins” here that would help controlling these types of leaks in massive organizations. This isn’t a new problem. The thing is, the organization hasn’t kept up with technology. Overclassification and need to know have always been issues, but there was a PHYSICAL barrier of having and transporting the documents. Today, it is as easy as logging in to have access to millions of documents that you have no time/inclination to read. Manning and Snowden had access and then dumped it onto the world stage – not cool, though I appreciate the concern that prompted these actions. Putting some barriers, which once decided is not that hard with software (though expensive) would go a long way to making sure the leaks that happen are confined to what needs to be leaked and not the entirety of a database.

    2. “Your article anthropomorphizes the government, making it into a conscious entity, with a sense of vindictiveness, which it is not. A government is not a person. A corporation is not a person. These institutions are driven by cultural policy making mechanisms whose priorities are entirely different from yours.”

      I take your point and of course it is not a person, but it does have known and stated interests and goals. In a discussion like this, using the subject “Government” allows us to agree and talk about what those interests are and if they are being subverted by the framework and processes put in place to pursue those interests.

      “The logical and ethical framework which provides the premises in your article is entirely incompatible with and unrelated to the perspective which leads to clandestine activities in the first place. ”

      I’m also pretty sure I disagree with this point but you’ll have to elaborate on this to be sure. Clandestine and secret activities can definitely have an ethical and moral underpinning that a society can agree to. It’s actually in these operations’ best interests to do so, since operating too long in the dark can make you effectively blind.

  3. It is interesting that the outrage of the public about the use of “private data” is directed toward government with none directed toward the private industries that collect and store it. Though it is within the government’s legal power to arrest and detain, no thought is given to the ability of individuals outside of government who might, without regard to legality, do great mischief and harm with this data.

    The last time I looked, most legislation is not written by our congressmen but by the lobbyists on K Street who represent the interests of corporations and industries. On my planet, there are motivations that go far beyond those that are advertised when the rules of the game require winning at all costs.

    1. You’re point is well taken GFB though I don’t think there is less outrage of private companies fooling with our data – just look at the public relations disasters with facebook constantly and Microsoft most recently. And there is no doubt that there are private companies and individuals who are abusing our data in shocking ways. However, there is a FUNDAMENTAL difference between a private company/citizen which is still nominally subject to the laws of the land violating people privacy and the government. Once found out, these private companies will feel the wrath of the market and the judicial system ( the extent of this wrath no doubt may extend only so far as a lobbyists’ wallet but the distinction is still there.) The Government however is often not open to prosecution and is the only entity that can LEGALLY suppress all information that might show it acted improperly – all under the guise of protecting national interests or executive privilege. The government also has and will COMPEL private citizens and companies to comply with whatever information it needs to these ends. When secret courts are secretly approving massive violations of peoples personal data, this all falls on our trust in the government that this data will be used for our country’s best interest. This is why it is much more troubling that private entities violating our privacy. Also, while I take your point that there is often too cozy of a relationship between lobbyists and legislators (crony capitalism anyone?) the responsibility still lies with our representatives – not the various interests who are working the broken system as it currently stands.

  4. Many former rogue hackers who have been charged with serious breeches of cyber-security have now contracted with corporations, governments and law enforcement to create anti-hacking schemes. Their brilliance in finding the weaknesses in secure systems now serves to find those weaknesses and eliminate them.

    In my opinion, Edward Snowden is not a traitor. I don’t think that he was motivated by any desire to hurt his country. It would be a coup for Russia if they grant asylum to Snowden who still has a trove of institutional knowledge of the intelligence system. Why should they mine his knowledge for their benefit?

    Edward Snowden should be pardoned immediately and transported back to this country under the condition that he work for the U. S. government (a big pay cut for him) which should place him on a task-force with a mandate to clean-up the classification system as you propose.

  5. It appears to have taken less than 12 years to transition from criticism of over-compartmentalization (9/11 Commission? Creation of the ODNI?) to just the opposite. Maybe the next transition will be a Goldilocks zone, but I very highly doubt it. I have very little confidence in the myriad agencies to ever come to an agreement on how to fix it, even in our post-war era. If anything, drawing down leaves potentially idle hands to muck it up even worse.

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