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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

How the sheer number of civilians with security clearance makes it difficult to stop intelligence leaks

TeaThe scale of the leak was enormous – thousands of secret documents, some of which held the most sensitive and important United States intelligence, were downloaded and put into the public domain in a massive blow to Western security.

Classified information was downloaded from the computers of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Defense Intelligence Agency by a civilian private contractor, which was investigated and granted the highest level of security clearance.

That was Edward Snowden, whose devastating revelations were made almost exactly 10 years ago.

Now there has been another major security leak from the Pentagon, almost certainly done by another civilian contractor. US intelligence agencies are gathering new reports every day from the interception of communications between the country’s allies as well as its enemies.

Many parallels exist between the two sets of leaks, a decade apart. These include, for example, revelations that the US spies on supposedly friendly countries such as Israel and South Korea. Snowden revealed that the US spied on Germany – an ally and fellow NATO member – even bugging the mobile telephone of then-Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The difference between the respective leaks can be seen in both inspiration and diffusion.

Snowden said he was a whistleblower motivated by alarm over the US administration’s aggressive actions and human rights violations. He chose to give the files he obtained to senior journalists from serious media outlets such as Washington Post And Guardian,

The current batch of documents was put on a web server, apparently to impress fellow users of a chat room rather than for ideological reasons.

It is not clear who did the leak. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin pledged to “examine and turn every rock until we find its source and its extent … They were somewhere in the web, and who had access at that point, we just don’t know”. CIA director William Burns said the leak was “deeply unfortunate”, and added: “We’re trying to find out everything we can about this. It’s something the US government takes extremely seriously.”

in a report Washington Post says the original source of the documents was a teenager with the initials “OG” – a gun enthusiast with racist and anti-Semitic views who worked at a military base viewing classified information.

The chatroom he used – which was called “Thug Shaker Central” and has since been closed – was named by the investigative journalism outlet Bellingcat as the forum on which the leak occurred. Members of the chat room say they were able to see more than 300 photographs of classified documents.

The secret files also appeared on a Discord channel run by a 20-year-old British-Filipino student based in the UK and known online as Wah Mao; He describes himself as a “shit-posting internet micro-celebrity”.

Some of the material also appeared on another Discord server, “Minecraft Earth Map”, where, following an argument about the Ukraine War, a user posted “Here, are some leaked documents” and attached 10 of them.

The case appears to be that the revelations are not the work of a state actor, such as the Russian or Chinese intelligence services or other adversaries. And this makes such an event hard to foresee or mitigate.

Both the Snowden leak and the current one are the result of a move towards privatization of security. The Pentagon has granted high-level security clearance to a large number of civilians. The number of employees and contractors in the US administration with top-secret clearance currently exceeds 1.25 million.

The UK has three levels of security clearance: Counter Terrorist Check (CTC), Security Check (SC) and Advanced Check (DV). Since 2018, an average of 164,000 CTC&SC and 17,900 DV clearances have been issued every year.

Jake Williams, a former NSA operative and an analyst at cyber security advisory firm IANS Research, comments: “It seems the Defense Department thought they had enough controls in place to detect potential leaks after Snowden-like incidents.” But obviously, whoever is doing this has survived it, or learned from previous techniques and mistakes.

British security analyst Robert Emerson says the concept of a leak-proof security world is utopian. “The amount of information is so great, being transmitted at such a speed, that it is almost impossible to ensure total control.

“Also, it would not be possible to operate in such an environment without the use of private contractors. And if, as has been the case in this case, there was no strong ideological or political motivation in leaking, it would be difficult to weed out individuals during vetting.” Is.

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