Tue, Oct 16, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Plugging the intelligence leak hole

When it comes to intelligence matters, the past month has not been a good one for the defense establishment, with at least two instances (that we know) of military intelligence being leaked. From shredded documents obtained by the media to Navy officers copying classified material for access on insecure systems at home, the ramifications of such shoddy handling of secrets are manifold.

The most obvious consequence of these leaks is that it increases the chances that the enemy will get its hands on the material and thereby gain a military advantage. Minutes of meetings, orders of battle and contracts with foreign militaries -- all, if they end up in the wrong hands, can be detrimental to the security of a nation. They facilitate treason and can also subject individuals to blackmail.

A second area that can suffer from security lapses is ties with allied militaries. If a nation cannot be trusted with secrets, its allies will be hesitant to pass on classified material for fear it will be accessed by the wrong people. Alliances are based on trust and sometimes classification isn't only a product of what is told or shown in a document but rather of the sharing itself not being for public consumption. In other words, sometimes allies do not want the rest of the world to know that an alliance exists.

If leaks occur on a frequent basis and a nation's allies do not perceive that the problem is being addressed, chances are the latter will consider ending cooperation on intelligence and perhaps even on the sale of advanced weapons that, if mishandled, could result in technology transfer.

Leaks can also jeopardize sources -- electronic and human -- as well as collection methods and obviate years of efforts, an outcome that is all the more serious when the product comes from a foreign agency that does not want its expenditures in time and money to go down the drain as a result of irresponsible handling by an ally.

Lastly, news of intelligence leaks undermine public confidence in the state's ability to defend itself, giving rise to fears of institutional ineptitude or, perhaps worse, that the authorities simply do not take their responsibilities seriously. It can also give the enemy a psychological advantage, if not prompt it to act on the assumed weakness of its opponent. All in all, this is not the image the defense establishment wants to project.

Minister of National Defense Lee Tien-yu (李天羽) can talk all he wants about taking the leak problem seriously, but as long as the consequences for those responsible for the leaks are not serious -- and so far they haven't been -- the nation and its allies will not have full confidence in the state's ability to handle secrets.

In many countries, even recruits caught taking home mock classified documents used for training purposes are not given a second chance -- they are fired on the spot. Leaks, willful or otherwise, are a career-ender. They don't result in transfer from one department to another, or in mere reprimand.

How defense and intelligence apparatuses handle classified material has very little to do with secure computer systems, firewalls and shredders. Dependable agencies have in place institutional ethics that make leaks exceptional events warranting serious action, not an almost routine occurrence that make onlookers shake their heads and wait for the next one to happen.

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