WASHINGTON — A national security adviser to President Clinton was caught transferring highly classified computer files from a secure network in the White House to an unsecured network, but was allowed to stay on the job, White House sources tell WorldNetDaily.
The 1998 breach in security occurred when the National Security Council official copied classified files onto a disk from an NSC computer in a secure area of the West Wing, White House employees say.
She then loaded the files onto a computer connected to an unsecured network in her Old Executive Office Building office, exposing the secret data to potential Internet hackers and foreign spies, sources say.
“It was a bunch of files, not just one,” said a White House employee familiar with the incident. “And they were all classified, which made it a serious security violation.”
Jaime Borrego, former White House information security officer, uncovered the computer security breach and alerted White House Security Officer Charles Easley.
Easley, in turn, met with then-White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles to discuss how to proceed with an investigation into the security infraction and
potential compromise of U.S. intelligence.
After the adviser admitted taking the classified files, Easley confiscated her computer and took away her building security badge.
But White House sources say the national security adviser, who is a Clinton appointee, was allowed to return to her job after going out on extended leave.
“She was supposed to be fired and wasn’t,” said a White House employee close to the investigation. “She went on maternity leave. Now she’s back working at NSC.”
National security experts say the White House security violation fits a pattern of sloppy handling of U.S. secrets throughout the government during the past eight years:
- State Department officials lost several classified laptops.
- A missing hard drive containing nuclear secrets turned up behind a copier at Los Alamos lab.
- A Los Alamos scientist managed to download the entire history of the U.S. nuclear-bomb program and bomb-testing data onto several computer tapes, some of which still haven’t been recovered.
- A Pentagon official left his CIA briefing book in a Beijing hotel room.
- Even CIA Director John Deutch mishandled secrets.
Clinton, along with his National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, have for the most part brushed off the problems as unfortunate but isolated events, while
assuring Americans that their national security secrets are safe.
“But this latest breach lays the problem right at the West Wing and at Berger’s door,” said William C. Triplett, a former Reagan White House official, who notes that Berger was a lobbyist for China before joining the NSC.
The White House refused to identify the NSC official who mishandled the classified material.
“It’s been a long-standing policy of the White House that we do not discuss internal security matters and investigations,” said White House spokesman Mark Kitchens.
Asked why the woman was allowed to keep her job, Kitchens said, “We don’t discuss our internal policies.”
Neither Kitchens nor NSC spokesman P.J. Crowley would say if the adviser has retained her CIA clearance to review classified information.
“This is the president’s national security staff, so they’re going to have access to the most sensitive materials the United States has,” said Ken
deGraffenreid, who headed intelligence programs at the NSC from 1981 to 1987.
“Everybody there would be cleared for extremely high levels of compartmented information, because it’s just the nature of the work,” he added.
White House insiders say the adviser accessed the files from a West Wing “SCIF” — a secure room where material classified Top Secret and above is stored in vaults and on secure computers.
Some SCIFs protect super-secret coded information. If such data fell into the wrong hands, they could cause grave danger to U.S. security — especially if they were transmitted electronically.
For that reason, SCIFs can’t have computers connected to an unclassified system, even if it’s the White House local area network used only by employees. They have to be on a secure system.
“You can’t bring in a regular phone line or Internet line into a full-up SCIF. You can’t take a cell phone in there, even though many of the rooms are hardened to protect against electronic eavesdropping,” said deGraffenreid.
“The rooms have access locks. Uncleared people can’t get in. Security officers are responsible for guarding them, along with information security specialists,” he added.
And there should still be procedures in place for removing magnetic media, he says. Staffers shouldn’t be able to take disks in or out — unless they log
them out and give a specific destination, such as another SCIF.
“If someone takes a disk out of a SCIF without logging it, they’re breaking the rules,” deGraffenreid said.
Transferring classified files to an unsecured network is a big no-no, former White House officials say.
“That’s what Wen Ho Lee did,” Triplett said. Lee is the Los Alamos scientist convicted of stealing secret restricted nuclear data, a felony.
White House sources say the NSC official’s computer hard drive was supposed to be wiped clean of the classified data she uploaded. It’s not clear if that was done. It’s also not clear what became of the disk she used.
The White House would not say.
“What was she doing uploading those files?” asked Notra Trulock, former Energy Department counterintelligence director. “There’s no good reason for it.”
“And did that classified information get onto an unclassified server?” he wondered.
According to one source, Borrego, a Naval officer detailed over to the White House from the National Security Agency at the time, spotted the security
breach by “doing scans of people’s systems.”
Poor grade from GAO
The Clinton White House has not had a good security track record.
In 1994, more than a year after taking office, more than 100 senior White House aides still had no security clearances. They were granted access to
highly classified information anyway, according to former White House FBI agent Gary Aldrich and others.
And in a 1998 report, the General Accounting Office found that between 1993 and 1996 there were no procedures to control access to Sensitive
Compartmented Information — the level of classification above Top Secret — within the Executive Office of the President.
The White House vowed to fix the problems.
But its security procedures issued in March 1998 did not set specific guidelines for safeguarding classified information.
What’s more, Clinton never established a security self-inspection program, despite an executive order mandating one. The White House director of information security said his office has never done a security inspection of classified programs at the White House.
“My impression is that security in this White House has been terrible,” deGraffenreid said. “They had problems just clearing people in the beginning.”
He says security was much tighter in the Reagan White House.
“We had very stringent controls over classified materials, though all that was in the easier days of dealing with paper, not networks,” he said.
Still, “I can’t recall any serious breaches then,” deGraffenreid said. “And people who lost or misplaced classified documents were dealt with severely.”
“In fact,” he added, “people back then were scared to death they’d go to jail if they mishandled information.”
Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan Defense official, agrees that Clinton ushered in a new culture.
“There’s been a dumbing down of national security,” he said, “and it’s been systematic.”
Gaffney says transferring classified files from the NSC network to an unsecured network probably was not viewed by the political appointees in the White House as a serious violation.
“Given what happened to Wen Ho Lee (who, from the start, was not prosecuted aggressively by Attorney General Janet Reno, and was let out of jail after he was convicted), I’m not sure that’s a hanging offense anymore,” Gaffney said.
Trulock, who originally fingered Lee as a bad actor, says the NSC official’s breach is par for the course for the outgoing administration.
“It’s so typical of the people in this administration — DOE (Department of Energy), State … they all do it,” he said. “They just have no regard for security procedures put in place to protect our secrets.”