Free Manning, Arrest Petraeus!

Cablegate is an absurd play. It shows supposed villains being held in custody and real culprits running free. If the authorities in the USA really want to have rule of law applied and respected and not just some kind of fake justice with show trials, they should face some rather inconvenient truth. And that is: The main responsibility for the leaks lies not only with the person or persons who donwloaded and leaked the documents to WikiLeaks but also with those who provided the opportunity, whose task it was to properly secure those secrets, and who utterly failed.

Pfc. Bradley Manning is charged with several delicts, e.g., delicts specified under the Espionage Act and violating 18 U.S. Code Section 1030(a)(1) “which criminalizes unauthorized computer downloads” . Regardless whether he is guilty or not, there are at least solid and lawful allegations against him. In case of Julian Assange the circumstances are different. He is detained in Great Britian because of danger of flight, as the court in London suspects him to evade a pending hearing about charges brought up against him from Swedish authorities in a case that has no relation to Cablegate . The USA plan to charge Assange in relation with Cablegate, but the allegations are not formally announced yet. They are still undisclosed, so one can only guess what’s in the offing . Until offical announcement there simply is no case against Assange with regard to Cablegate. But if charges are brought up against him in this matter, then Great Britain as well as Sweden will surely not hesitate to extradite him to the USA. The conjecture from the international public that Assange is held in British custody just to have him save in case an extradition request comes from the USA (either directly to Great Britain or via Sweden) is, up to this point, rather speculation and borders on conspiracy theories. Although Julian Assange is a hero for freedom of speech (there are not many people who dare what he did), he is not yet a prisoner for freedom of speech. Accordingly a lot of international outcry is misguided. That doesn’t mean that there will be no charges against him with regard to Cablegate and freedom of speech. This has to be seen. But until then his detention is independent from Manning’s.

The undisclosed but pending charges against Assange with regard to Cablegate are the center of the international debate. Here US-politicians like Sarah Palin, Joe Lieberman and others earned some notoriety. This debate is indeed about freedom of speech, and it is accompanied by recent activities of several large companies to resolve their business ties with Wikileaks that threaten it to work properly. Even as it seems perfectly legal according to the terms of trade it is rather questionable whether the companies should have proceeded that way. While initiatives like the SHIELD act from Senator Joe Lieberman threaten the First Amendment rights of free speech in the USA , the cut of businesss ties between Wikileaks and major US companies indicates a real danger that the exercise of one’s right of free speech may depend crucially on the business policies of private companies . Both, legal and structural threats to the exercise of the right of free speech are real, are important, and have to be addressed by the international public. One may use Julian Assange as a figurehead in this conflict (and he is obviously happy to play this part), but even then it is doubtful that right now these are coordinated efforts on the side of the US government to quell any further publication of the leaked State Department documents. 

What is astonishing is the one-sidedness of the US government in trying to charge Julian Assange while simulataneously not charging anybody else in the Armed Forces or the intelligence community besides Pfc. Bradley Manning. It is simply stated without further ado that there are no further suspects that took part in the acquisition of confidential documents and leakage to Wikileaks . But it is also obvious that only a very specific set of conditions allowed Bradley Manning (or whoever did this) to download confidential documents on a removable data carrier like a CD-ROM, necessary to get the material out to Wikileaks. It is astounding that the international public concentrates on questions of free speech and stops there. It is not interested in the circumstances that led to the leakage as it is not interested in the fate of Pfc. Bradley Manning either. A hero, yes, and now let’s forget him. But there are questions to be asked in order that Pfc. Bradley Manning doesn’t become a scapegoat in an unfair trial. 

It is usually assumed that Manning approached the networks and databases on his own, that he used his security clearance to access sensitive data and leaked them to the public via the help of Wikileaks. What is not taken into account is that only for a very short time were access, download, and leakage even possible. 

Pfc. Bradley Manning had a “Top Secret/SCI” clearance with which he had access to the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet) as well as to the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) . SIPRNet is a network used by the US State Department and the Departement of Defense worldwide to access and transmit confidential information up to (and including) the declaration “secret”. JWICS on the other hand is a network used by the State Department, the Department of Defense, the intelligence agencies, and the Department of Homeland Security worldwide to access and transmit confidential information with the declaration “top secret”. While downloading of information from JWICS on removable data carriers was and is forbidden by security regulations, the same is not true for SIPRNet . In his Time-article “Why WikiLeaks Is Winning Its Info War” Massimo Calabresi mentions these conditions only in passing:

Thanks to an imperative from then commander of the U.S. Central Command David Petraeus and others to share information with allies on improvised explosive devices and other threats, the Central Command allowed the down- loading of data from its secret in-house network, SIPRNet, to removable storage devices, officials tell TIME. The information was then carried to computers linked to secret networks used by allies and uploaded. The process was derisively called “sneaker net,” because it was so inefficient, although it replaced the prior need to manually retype all information into the allied computers.

It seems to be this unprecedentet opportunity to download classified material from the SIPRNet that Pfc. Bradley Manning was referring to when he declared to the former hacker Adrian Lamo that he had “unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months” . This is supported by the observation that none of the leaked documents of Cablegate (at least what is publicly known yet) bears the classification “top secret” . If a “top
secret”-document would appear in the Cablegate-material then this would be a sign that either Pfc. Bradley Manning (or whoever leaked them) had some other way to access and download material from the JWICS or that there are further collaborators that do have such access.

Before and after  the “imperative” from General David Petraeus and others, documents couldn’t be downloaded from SIPRNet on removable data carriers. The SIPRNet had and now has the same restrictions with regards to downloading as JWICS . The US military acknowledges that the opportunity to download on a removable data carrier is a major threat. As Noah Shachtman writes in his “Military Bans Disks, Threatens Courts-Martial to Stop New Leaks” on Danger Room (Wired):

Maj. Gen. Richard Webber, commander of Air Force Network Operations, issued the Dec. 3 “Cyber Control Order” — obtained by Danger Room — which directs airmen to “immediately cease use of removable media on all systems, servers, and stand alone machines residing on SIPRNET,” the Defense Department’s secret network. Similar directives have gone out to the military’s other branches.  “Unauthorized data transfers routinely occur on classified networks using removable media and are a method the insider threat uses to exploit classified information. To mitigate the activity, all Air Force organizations must immediately suspend all SIPRNET data transfer activities on removable media,” the order adds.

As the persons who made the security breach possible by allowing to use removable data carrier are well known, the questions are rather straightforward: Why did apparently nobody examine the potential security risks involved with the “imperative” to use removable data carriers? [1] Why is General David Petraeus not indicted, prosecuted, and reprimanded? Why are charges going to be made against Julian Assange although the responsibility for the leaks lies entirely on the side of the US military? Why is it that Pfc. Bradley Manning is treated as the sole suspect in a case of security breach that involves activities from people high up in the military command? Why is this case even framed as a security breach solely consisting in the download of classsifed material and not as aiding and abetting leakage of classified information that comprises the creation of risky circumstances as well as the actual download and leakage of documents? 

As long as General David Petraeus’ share and (unintentional) complicity in this process is not publicly examined in front of an inquiry commission or a court, every trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning will have the air of loading the total of the burden on the small guy in order that the big ones get away. This is grossly unfair and presumably unlawful. As long as no allegations against General David Petraeus are filed it is necessary to set Pfc. Bradley Manning free. Otherwise no fair and due process can be expected.

It is one thing to place the burden of the criminal charges with regard to downloading and leaking of classified material on one person while keeping the upper levels of the military untouched. It is another thing to try to quell the publication of further material with the use of intimidations of Wikileaks or other media like The New York Times. The first one is a legal scandal. The second one is not only a futile attempt to censor the press in the name and interest of national security, it is de facto the prolonged undermining of this same national security. It is the confession that every democracy relies, in the end, on brute force instead of the rule of law. With every further intimidation people like Senator Joe Lieberman show that democracy is not the best of all ugly possibilities, but that every form of hierarchical organized complex system is bound to be dictatorial. The USA and its allies France and Australia should consider very carefully whether the fallout of Cablegate will not be much worse if and when the public loses trust in the lawfullness and equality we’re supposed to enjoy in modern societies. These violent attempts to curb negative consequences for our societies will only produce much harsher negative consequences and backlashs. They can already be seen on the web, in the media, in the public discussions. The end of the state as we know him might be nearer than we think. 

In order to avoid such breakdown in trust on a larger scale the utmost attention must be placed on due process. That means at least the immediate release of Julian Assange, the qualified or provisory release of Pfc. Bradley Manning, and the allegation or arrest of General David Petraeus for the complicity and carelessness the Armed Forces have shown in this disaster of national security for the USA. It is not Julian Assange, Wikileaks, or Bradley Manning who endanger innocent lives. It is the carelessness of the Armed Forces of the USA, the government, and the intelligence comunity that brought about the danger on so many innocent people. At least this time the Government and the Armed Forces of the USA should accept their responsibility. Scape-goating is not an option. Not this time.


[1]  This is all the more incomprehensible given the fact that in the USA 2.5 million people, military personnel and civilians, have clearance to access documents marked “secret” . A security breach must have been just a question of when, not if.


Update 2011.02.02 : Lax supervision in the Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility (SCIF) in Baghdad, where the downloads took place, and insufficient supervision of subordinates are now seen as necessary conditions for the leakage of the classified material: “If proper security procedures had been in place, the acts Manning is accused of committing would have been impossible, the second official said.” (page 2)
Update 2011.05.29 : In their article WikiLeaks accused Bradley Manning ‘should never have been sent to Iraq’ (as in the accompanying video The madness of Bradley Manning?) Maggie O’Kane, Chavala Madlena and Guy Grandjean point to a security environment in Forward Operation Base Hammer in Iraq (where Manning was stationed) that borders on the grotesque. Many computers with connection to the SIPRNet had their passwords posted on sticky notes on the machine or nearby. No security oversight was in place, many people came and went, logged on and off the SIPRNet-connected computers. The video explicitly reports that service members whose clearances weren’t checked accessed the computers for fun and entertainment. – With this environment, how is it possible to place the burden of the leakage on just one soldier? How could this even possibly be verified or proved? It literally could have been anyone.


This post is a follow-up to an earlier one: The Missed Absurdity of Cablegate.

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