David Leigh guardian.co.uk, Sunday 28 November 2010 18.14 GMT
US soldier Bradley Manning, left, who is accused of stealing the classified files and handing the database to the WikiLeaks website of Julian Assange, right. (Photograph: Associated Press/AFP/Getty Images)
An innocuous-looking memory stick, no longer than a couple of fingernails, came into the hands of a Guardian reporter earlier this year. The device is so small it will hang easily on a keyring. But its contents will send shockwaves through the world’s chancelleries and deliver what one official described as “an epic blow” to US diplomacy.
The 1.6 gigabytes of text files on the memory stick ran to millions of words: the contents of more than 250,000 leaked state department cables, sent from, or to, US embassies around the world.
What will emerge in the days and weeks ahead is an unprecedented picture of secret diplomacy as conducted by the planet’s sole superpower. There are 251,287 dispatches in all, from more than 250 US embassies and consulates. They reveal how the US deals with both its allies and its enemies – negotiating, pressuring and sometimes brusquely denigrating foreign leaders, all behind the firewalls of ciphers and secrecy classifications that diplomats assume to be secure. The leaked cables range up to the “SECRET NOFORN” level, which means they are meant never to be shown to non-US citizens.
As well as conventional political analyses, some of the cables contain detailed accounts of corruption by foreign regimes, as well as intelligence on undercover arms shipments, human trafficking and sanction-busting efforts by would-be nuclear states such as Iran and Libya. Some are based on interviews with local sources while others are general impressions and briefings written for top state department visitors who may be unfamiliar with local nuances.
Intended to be read by officials in Washington up to the level of the secretary of state, the cables are generally drafted by the ambassador or subordinates. Although their contents are often startling and troubling, the cables are unlikely to gratify conspiracy theorists. They do not contain evidence of assassination plots, CIA bribery or such criminal enterprises as the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan years, when anti-Nicaraguan guerrillas were covertly financed.
One reason may be that America’s most sensitive “top secret” and above foreign intelligence files cannot be accessed from Siprnet, the defence department network involved.
The US military believes it knows where the leak originated. A soldier, Bradley Manning, 22, has been held in solitary confinement for the last seven months and is facing a court martial in the new year. The former intelligence analyst is charged with unauthorised downloads of classified material while serving on an army base outside Baghdad. He is suspected of taking copies not only of the state department archive, but also of video of an Apache helicopter crew gunning down civilians in Baghdad, and hundreds of thousands of daily war logs from military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It was childishly easy, according to the published chatlog of a conversation Manning had with a fellow-hacker. “I would come in with music on a CD-RW labelled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’ … erase the music … then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing … [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s Telephone while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.” He said that he “had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months”.
Manning told his correspondent Adrian Lamo, who subsequently denounced him to the authorities: “Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public … Everywhere there’s a US post, there’s a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed. Worldwide anarchy in CSV format … It’s beautiful, and horrifying.”
He added: “Information should be free. It belongs in the public domain.”
Manning, according to the chatlogs, says he uploaded the copies to WikiLeaks, the “freedom of information activists” as he called them, led by Australian former hacker Julian Assange.
Assange and his circle apparently decided against immediately making the cables public. Instead they embarked on staged disclosure of the other material – aimed, as they put it on their website, at “maximising political impact”.
In April at a Washington press conference the group released the Apache helicopter video, titling it Collateral Murder.
The Guardian’s Nick Davies brokered an agreement with Assange to hand over in advance two further sets of military field reports on Iraq and Afghanistan so professional journalists could analyse them. Published earlier this year simultaneously with the New York Times and Der Spiegel in Germany, the analyses revealed that coalition forces killed civilians in previously unreported shootings and handed over prisoners to be tortured.
The revelations shot Assange and WikiLeaks to global prominence but led to angry denunciations from the Pentagon and calls from extreme rightwingers in the US that Assange be arrested or even assassinated. This month Sweden issued an international warrant for Assange, for questioning about alleged sexual assaults. His lawyer says the allegations spring from unprotected but otherwise consensual sex with two women.
WikiLeaks says it is now planning to post a selection of the cables. Meanwhile, a Guardian team of expert writers has been spending months combing through the data. Freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke obtained a copy of the database through her own contacts and joined the Guardian team. The paper is to publish independently, but simultaneously with the New York Times and Der Spiegel, along with Le Monde in Paris and El País in Madrid. As on previous occasions the Guardian is redacting information likely to cause reprisals against vulnerable individuals.
by Rich Galen
A selection of hundreds of thousands of documents – most of them classified – were released yesterday by the New York Times and several other newspapers around the world having been provided to them several weeks ago by Wikileaks.com.
It is not clear whether any of the documents the newspapers are publishing today – mostly between U.S. State Department offices and embassies – will do physical harm, but they are likely to be embarrassing and, according to the Times, “could strain relations with some countries, influencing international affairs in ways that are impossible to predict.”
These documents, and a similar cache which were released several months ago, were allegedly stolen by a U.S. Army private, PFC Bradley Manning, who was an intelligence analyst serving at a base north of Baghdad.
How, you might ask, can some 22-year-old private get his hands on this much stuff? The answer is: It’s all on the internet. But not the internet you’re looking at now.
The U.S. Government has an internet which is completely separate from your internet. It is called the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, but I doubt more than a few of the thousands of people who use it every day know it by that name.
It is better known as the SIPRNET (pronounced “SIP-er-net”) and no one can access it unless they have a security clearance at least at the SECRET level.
I know this because while I was in Iraq I had the appropriate clearance and the occasional need to access the SIPRNET. I would go to a secure room, log in using a separate ID and password, do whatever I needed to do, log off, and leave the room.
I was told that the act of plugging a personal flash drive into a computer connected to the SIPRNET was a court-martial offense.
The Military also runs the NIPRNET (NIP-er-net), the Non-Classified Internet Protocol Router Network which is available to anyone and hooks into the internet you’re using now.
There is no point – or there is supposed to be no point – where the SIPRNET and the NIPRNET intersect. SIPRNET e-mail addresses are different from the standard dot-mil e-mail address to which you can send a message. A SIPRNET e-mail address can only be reached by a person with his or her own SIPRNET e-mail address. I could not, for instance, send an e-mail to myself from my SIPRNET e-mail account to email@example.com.
Thing is, I was often alone in the room with the SIPRNET terminals. I assume that someone like PFC Manning, whose job it was to troll the SIPRNET and provide analysis of intel he discovered there for the benefit of his commanders, was not closely supervised on an hour-by-hour basis.
Text documents take up very little space. The average MULLINGS column (about 750 words) uses about 90 kilobytes. The flash drive on which I keep my MULLINGS docs has a capacity of 32 gigabytes – 32 billion bytes of data. That means I could keep more than 350,000 MULLINGS columns on that one drive. Using inexpensive compression software, I could probably double that to about 750,000 documents.
Someone intent on stealing documents could easily plug in a flash drive, and download everything from the State Department’s folders. A 1993 GAO report estimated there were more than 3 million people who had the appropriate clearance to access the SIPRNET. That was eight years before 9/11 so one could assume that number has at least doubled.
All it takes is one person, bent on doing harm, to download and share hundreds of thousands of documents. It appears a Private First Class sitting in an office 40 miles north of Baghdad may have been that person.