How did Manning, a mere PFC, get access to all that stuff?

The question comes up again and again, mostly in comments. Really, though, there’s no mystery.

Have a look at it. If you had to characterize it in a short phrase, one that would immediately come up is low information density. It’s boring. It’s repetitive. Most of it not only contains nothing new, it has no real information content. People have been leafing through it for days, now, and nothing truly startling or unexpected has come up. (This is not to say there won’t be political fallout.)

The information got to DoD in the most mundane way possible. After 9/11, investigators discovered that information was not being shared between Federal agencies, sometimes by policy (the “Gorelick Wall”), sometimes by bureaucratic turf-protection, sometimes by simple inertia. The Word went out from On High: Thou Shalt Share Thy Data. Every agency concerned had gigabytes of stuff collected over the years that their own analysts had been through and pronounced useless — but there was no way of knowing whether it might be useful to some other agency, so the bureaucrats shrugged and put it all on line.

That’s exactly the sort of stuff you give to the lowest-level analyst possible. High-level analysts need to be spending time on things with more solid referents, most assuredly including the nuggets the PFCs find. They shouldn’t be slowly paging through miles of haystacks looking for the occasional sharp objects. That’s what enlisted people (and their civilian GS9 and below equivalents) are for.

There’s a parallel in my own experience. I used to be an imagery analyst, back when “imagery” meant film. A reconnaissance mission would come back with hundreds or thousands of frames on up to six different rolls. Maybe three of those frames had something of interest on them. The guy in charge of our section was a Lieutenant Commander — O-4, “Major” to non-Navy — and a crackerjack analyst. Did he scroll through all that film looking for traces of bad guys? He did not, nor did the Chief who managed the enlisted. It was me and the other enlisted who waded through the crap, eliminating shots of the sky and the carrier’s deck and miles and miles of trees, looking for the dozen or so images that might be interesting and kicking them upstairs to the more-qualified for final analysis. PFC Manning was doing the same, except documents instead of pictures.

The somewhat-more-interesting question is how Manning got out with the stuff. Apparently he brought in a blank or re-writable CD in a case advertising a commercial recording, and simply recorded over whatever was already on it. It would seem fairly straightforward to have the network monitor activity, and throw up flags if large amounts of data were downloaded at once — but that was Manning’s job: going through large amounts of data looking for interesting things. There’d be nothing unusual about him gulping down big chunks, so as to have them on his own computer rather than suffering network latency. Your Web browser does the same thing, downloading the entire content of a Web page and putting it in cache for quick access rather than grabbing a piece at a time when you want to look at it.

Some hapless Lieutenant in Manning’s chain of command will carry the can for this, but really, all I can fault his superiors for is letting him leave with a substantial data store. If I were running a group like that, people would be permitted to bring in anything they liked, but would not be allowed to leave with anything at all that could store data, including CDs (pre-recorded or not), thumbdrives, SD-cards, and digital picture frames. If they want to listen to music while working, that’d be fine, but the disk would get destroyed rather than taken home. The stuff isn’t all that expensive any more, and it’s easy enough to “rip” copies for use at work.

In the end, though, an intelligence agency has to depend on oaths, promises. All the people who work there take an oath not to let anything get out, and oaths are supposed to mean something. If, as we are all beginning to suspect, such oaths mean little or nothing in the face of Higher Callings and the profit to be made from handing the data over to the New York Times, the intelligence agencies will have to implement some more intrusive data protection measures, and that in itself will lead to more disgruntlement and consequent reference to Higher Calling. It’s a conundrum that probably has no good solution.