Any journalist who in the past might have experienced a buzz on receiving a leaked document sent through the post in a plain envelope can only marvel at the prospect of having access to the vast treasure trove of confidential information made available by the whistle blowing website WikiLeaks.
A leaker of yesteryear could hardly have assembled, let alone handed over, the great mass of documents which can now be compressed into a single compact disc and then disseminated online. While the mechanics of leaking might have changed out of all recognition thanks to the continuing revolution in information technology, there is one constant factor.
Leaks usually derive from the action of a single individual who has access to secret data and who believes however misguidedly that the confidential information going across his or her desk – or now appearing on their computer screens – should be placed in the public domain.Another telling parallel is that governments always seem to be one step behind the sophisticated leaker, not realising that while rapid advances in office technology might improve efficiency, they inevitably throw up fresh opportunities for prying eyes and a chance to thwart even the most sophisticated security systems. Try as they might, the authorities have failed abysmally down the years: in the 1960s Harold Wilson was so exasperated by leaks that he suggested the installation of a camera above the Downing Street photocopier; during the 1984-5 miners’ strike, anti-photocopying stripes were inserted into National Coal Board documents; in the late 1980s government departments were caught out for not disabling ‘duplicate print’ buttons on fax machines; and ever since the massive growth in the use of computers in the early 1990s, an unattended terminal has presented an open invitation to a passerby tempted to press the ‘print’ key and walk away with a confidential document.
Perhaps not surprisingly the US Defence Department is now trying desperately to safeguard its data: CD and DVD recorders are being stripped from its computers; security systems are being redesigned to require two people to move significant amounts of information from a classified to an unclassified computer; and software is being installed to detect downloads of an unusual size. Private Bradley Manning, the US Army intelligence analyst who is facing trial in America for supplying hundreds of thousands of sensitive American documents to the WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, has been accused of unlawfully downloading classified information over an eight to nine month period.
While stationed in Iraq, he managed to transfer the data from classified intelligence networks, compress the information into CDs and later upload them on to a commercial network computer; some of his CDs were apparently delivered via a physical drop-off. Manning is being blamed for the largest leak of confidential material in American history.
It included what became known as the collateral murder video shot through the sights of an Apache helicopter; the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs; and up to 260,000 diplomatic cables from US embassies around the world. As the New York Times
has pointed out, if Manning had been attempting to leak a similar quantity of secret data twenty years ago he would have needed access to a massive photocopier, ‘a great many reams of paper and a tractor-trailer’ to tow away his gigantic stash of leaked documents. Pre-trial accounts of Manning’s motivation point to a pattern of behaviour which chimes with that of recent celebrated leakers in Britain.
A young and hitherto trusted employee, often in a relatively lowly grade, becomes deeply troubled by evident contradictions and deceptions in the information which they are required to process; they feel it is their duty, whatever the risk, to alert the public; and invariably they try to achieve this by handing over the data to what they hope and believe is a trusted news and information provider. The full extent of Manning’s relationship with WikiLeaks has yet to be revealed but a fellow computer hacker has suggested that it was after seeing “incredible things, awful things...things that belonged in the public domain” that Manning decided to make contact online with Julian Assange. Where Manning’s conduct differed from that of Sarah Tisdall or Katharine Gun was that he became a serial leaker whereas they acted on the spur of the moment.
Ms Tisdall, a young civil servant in Foreign Office, was sentenced to six months in prison in 1984 for breaching the Official Secrets Act by supplying the Guardian
with documents detailing the delivery of Cruise missiles to the US Air Force base at Greenham Common.
In 2003, Ms Gun, a translator at GCHQ Cheltenham, was “so shocked” by an email from the US National Security Agency about an American plan to bug phones ahead of a UN vote in the lead-up to the Iraq War, that she “took off her headset and went to the ladies’ lavatory.”
She later copied and pasted the email, printed off a copy, walked out of GCHQ with it in her bag, asked a friend to pass it to a journalist and it was published by the Observer
. Five days before her trial, counsel for the Crown dropped the case. Another telling parallel is managerial ineptitude. A young office worker who remained undetected after becoming a serial leaker told me she sensed her supervisors thought anyone doing menial clerical duties was “just a dumb drudge.”
In her opinion leaking had the most impact when the person who had access to the information knew how to use it to the greatest effect. “It is that deadly combination, the possession of information and knowing where best to place a leak, which turned my leaking into such a heady cocktail.
Sometimes, if I was really annoyed by the correspondence, I would leak a copy to a journalist or an MP.
If I thought the information might be of real assistance in helping to mount a campaign against the government, I would send it to a pressure group but I took that decision, it was entirely down to me.
That was why I found leaking so addictive.”
(This article first appeared in British Journalism Review, March 2011. Nicholas Jones was a BBC correspondent for thirty years. His books include Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip-offs.)