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WikiLeaks incident shouldn't chill info-sharing, ex-CIA chief says

Easy access to data is vital to security, says retired general Michael Hayden

August 4, 2010 07:09 AM ET

Computerworld - The recent publication of classified military documents on the whistleblower site WikLeaks should not be allowed to chill information-sharing that's been going on within the military and intelligence communities, the former director of the CIA said Tuesday.

In an interview, retired Gen. Michael Hayden, who led both the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA), expressed concern over the potential for knee-jerk restrictions on data-sharing in response to the incident.

"Senior leadership in the country will have to guard against over-reaction," Hayden cautioned. "Clearly, we need to be careful. We have to pay more attention to security," he said.

Wikileaks last week posted more than 90,000 military and intelligence documents about the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst who has already been accused of supplying WikiLeaks with a video allegedly showing a deadly U.S Apache helicopter attack in Iraq, is the prime suspect in the leak of the Afghanistan war documents.

Their release prompted widespread criticism from those who believe that the move needlessly put critical U.S. intelligence and military assets in Afghanistan in harm's way. Since the documents were published, critics have called for WikiLeaks' Australian-born founder, Julian Assange, to be held accountable for his actions.

Others meanwhile have rallied to WikiLeaks' side and argued that its actions are a legitimate exercise of free speech.

According to Hayden, the incident highlights the risks associated with the information-sharing that has been going on within the military for some time. Networks such as the U.S. Department of Defense's Secret Internet Protocol Router Network or SIPRNet, which Manning is alleged to have accessed, are designed to pass along important information as quickly and efficiently as possible.

"You can't be hierarchical. Information has to be accessible at the node and be available and retrievable in a way as to allow our nodes to be as agile as our enemy," Hayden said. "We are an information-based military."

Over the years, there has been a substantial emphasis on pushing "as much information as possible" into SIPRNet and on sharing and providing access to that information he said. "Anybody who was doing this knew there was a dark side to this," Hayden said, referring to the potential for insider abuse. "This is like a ship which removes all its water-tight doors. Once you get a leak, that's pretty much it."

The way forward is not to curtail information-sharing, but to explore the use of better technology controls for monitoring access and use of the data, he said. "It's about applying the right technologies" and revisiting the clearance policies for providing access to data, he said.

Robert Rodriguez, a former Secret Service special agent and founder of the Security Innovation Network, said the WikiLeaks incident has the potential to put the skids on information-sharing inside the intelligence communities. The incident could result in a policy that will "create more stovepipes instead of more open information-sharing," he said,

"The intelligence community has always been beat up for not sharing information and for being segmented and stovepiped," he said. But when you start to open more access and doors, you put information and people more at risk," he said. "What WikiLeaks did was very harmful" and will likely lead to new dictates on how information is shared.

"The worst thing that can happen is an over-reactive policy that locks down and completely stovepipes the intelligence community's efforts," Rodriguez said. "It would reverse the success and advancements of information-sharing."

The key is to have the right controls, said James Lewis, director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I think they will have to revisit the question of access to information. There are real benefits, but there will be some pressure to push back on easier information-sharing and there will also be the question of whether there are technological fixes that could reduce risk."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at Twitter @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed Vijayan RSS. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

Read more about Security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.



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