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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Did Pentagon quietly aid Wikileaks
in ploy to neuter China cyber thefts?

Was the leak of a cache of Pentagon and State Department messages an inside job by intelligence professionals, with Private Bradley Manning either a dupe or a fall guy? 

Daniel Flitton, diplomatic editor for Australia's serious newspaper, the Age, points out that national security computer networks are a target of cyber-spies and argues that "it's a good bet that if Manning had the ability and opportunity to tear the guts out of America's classified computer system, the Russian and Chinese intelligence services did too."

The Wikileaks trove reportedly originated in the U.S. Central Command (Centcom), which oversees military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Centcom is also the point where a massive breach of security reportedly occurred in 2008. Both Russia and China were suspects -- with most suspicion centered on China -- in the siphoning of a large amount of military information.

Suppose the information the adversary obtained included traffic on the SIPDIS network, which carried both diplomatic and military messages? That would mean that Beijing (probably) would hold an advantage whereby it could use the secret diplomatic cables in the poker games of international diplomacy, selectively leaking tidbits to non-U.S. envoys for diplomatic advantage.

Such a situation, the thinking goes, would be intolerable for the national security elite in Washington. What to do? The best bet would be to go public with all -- or much of -- the stolen data. But simply declassifying it would be politically and diplomatically untenable.

A veteran intelligence officer, such as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates who spent much of his career in the CIA, might well appreciate the need for a type of operation familiar from the Cold War era. Just have Wikileaks obtain the trove and pin the deed on some hapless private. It has been reported that before the data cache was dumped, Centcom loosened its security protocols to permit the uploading of the entire data base onto a flash drive.

And, to add to the cover story's professionalism, make sure to leak some documents created well after the Centcom system was compromised.

None of this implies awareness of such a ruse by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman or Rep. Peter T. King, chairmen of the Senate and House homeland security committees who both used heated rhetoric in denouncing Assange and Wikileaks. Intelligence professionals are notoriously shrewd about oversight. And President Obama may have been shielded under the rule that the "old man" must not be exposed by being told of such an affair.

But it is pretty much inconceivable that Gates would have been out of the loop. The same cannot be said for Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state; Leon Panetta, the CIA's political chief; and the harried James R. Clapper, whose role appears to be largely that of a political liaison.

And avoiding much of the prevailing Assange-as-demon hyperbole was none other than... Robert Gates.

Rejecting much of the official and unofficial criticism as "significantly overwrought," Gates said the WikiLeaks disclosures would prove "embarrassing" and "awkward" but would have only "modest consequences."

"Now I've heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought," Gates told a news conference. "The fact is governments deal with the United States because it is in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us and not because they believe we can keep secrets. "

However, that doesn't mean that Gates and his national security associates are terribly concerned about the fates of Manning or Julian Assange. Like Manning, if he is indeed a culprit, Assange would be considered as a "useful idiot" or dupe. Similarly, various other journalists involved in the leaks would be counted as unwitting conduits of a clever stratagem.

From Assange's point of view, he takes information where he can get it. It's a given among reporters, police officers and intelligence agents that information is often volunteered to further some agenda or other. Yet that doesn't mean the information isn't worth using.

As a final point, the blog Threat Level once ridiculed the idea that Centcom had been compromised. But then Threat Level has posted quite a few items which, taken as a whole, appear to run interference for the Pentagon.

Another scenario had Israel's supporters orchestrating the Wikileaks cache to further Israel's foreign policy. But Assange has since pointed out that editors at the New York Times, the Guardian and other news organizations had decided against publishing sensitive cables about Israel. A few such cables have surfaced after Aftenposten of Oslo got hold of the Wikileaks cache.

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