POLITICS
06/26/2013 02:13 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2013

State Department Cables Were Unprotected, Witness In Bradley Manning Trial Testifies

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FORT MEADE, Md. -- They specify in intense detail, down to the vodka brand, the United States' observations of foreign powers. But the State Department took few steps to protect its classified diplomatic cables once they were handed over to the military, its former Chief Technology Officer Charlie Wisecarver testified in Bradley Manning's trial on Wednesday.

Manning is the Army private first class who faces life in prison for handing a massive cache of documents, including 251,287 of those State Department cables, over to WikiLeaks. To prove many of the most serious charges against him, the government will need to show that the information he delivered to WikiLeaks was "closely held" by the United States government.

That determination will ultimately be made by the judge overseeing the case, Col. Denise Lind. On Wednesday, Wisecarver and Manning defense lawyer David Coombs tussled over whether a database that was available to 20,000 State Department employees, and countless more members of the military, could really be considered "closely held."

As part of the State Department's post-9/11 efforts to share potentially critical information more broadly within the government, it received funding from the Department of Defense to digitize and share its cables reporting from embassies worldwide. Wisecarver, who retired in April 2011, oversaw that process.

"The idea was that there was a wealth of information that needed to be available on the ground, to the warfighters," Wisecarver said.

Collecting and making the cables available was a massive operation spanning the globe; at one point, the department enlisted foreign service officers' spouses to physically scan in older cables, some dating back to World War II. The result was a massive database, growing by 300,000 new cables each year as of the mid-2000s, that Manning was able to upload to a WikiLeaks drop box with the press of a button.

Manning has admitted to handing the cables over to WikiLeaks, but rejects the government's claims that he did so by exceeding his computer access privileges, knowing they could hurt the U.S, or that he stole the database they were on -- all charges that, if proven, could give him additional prison time.

In his February statement accepting responsibility for some of the charges against him, Manning said he believed "the world would be a better place if states would avoid making secret pacts and deals with and against each other."

At the time of the cables' release, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said their disclosure was an "attack on the international community." The State Department has not made public its assessment of what harm the releases caused to U.S. interests, although sources told Reuters that the department concluded there was little lasting damage.

In testimony entered in the record on Wednesday, State Department Intelligence and Resource Branch Manager Gerald Mundy said that a forensic investigation had revealed "no evidence Pfc. Manning used any tools to defeat the firewall protections," that State had put in place around the cables database. But the prosecution maintains Manning asked WikiLeaks to help him crack the password for a classified computer in Iraq in order to browse the cables anonymously.

Wisecarver's testimony revealed why Manning had such easy access to the database. Once the cables were uploaded to the Defense Department's Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRN), State imposed almost no limits on their use: No authorization and no authentication measures were in place. State instead counted on the Department of Defense's background checks and security measures.

"Basically the State Department relied on the end users of the data -- in this case the military -- to guard against any abuse, is that correct?" Coombs asked Wisecarver, who agreed.

Those hundreds of thousands of cables are available internally to a reported 2.5 million users. Coombs asked whether SIPRNet users should be uploading "our nation's most closely held secrets?"

Wisecarver dodged the question: "I don't know if that's necessarily the case," he said.

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