Lapses at Afghan airbase deplored

April 27, 2006|By JULIAN E. BARNES | JULIAN E. BARNES,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Army's chief of staff said yesterday that he is frustrated by the security lapses at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan that led to the loss of potentially sensitive data and that the military must learn how to be more careful with new technology.

Weeks after revelations that flash drives carrying sensitive and classified information have turned up for sale in a bazaar outside Bagram, Gen. Peter Schoomaker said the Army is trying to improve how soldiers used and secured flash drives.

"We have been working hard to educate the force," he said, "to develop policies to make sure everyone understands what the vulnerabilities are."

A market for used computer memory drives has sprung up outside of the Bagram base. On April 10, the Los Angeles Times reported that drives being sold at a marketplace just outside the base gate contained documents and files labeled secret. Although some of the information had been deleted, it was easily reconstructed with software available on the Internet.

Documents on some of the drives appeared to contain the names, photographs and telephone numbers of Afghan informants aiding U.S. forces.

After the disclosure, the military began a criminal investigation and tightened security at the base. But last weekend, additional drives with sensitive data were being sold at the Bagram bazaar. One smuggler told the Times that he had sold four memory drives to a local shopkeeper after a shift change Sunday afternoon.

U.S. military officials have been vague about the steps they are taking to improve security practices in Afghanistan and across the armed forces.

"We are making all attempts to protect the identities of people who are helping us to defeat the enemy," Col. Thomas Collins, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, wrote in an e-mail.

Collins and other officers familiar with the situation in Bagram said security improvements made after the first disclosures of stolen drives are working.

Members of Congress said this week that they want to learn more about what commanders are doing to stop the security lapses. Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it was disconcerting to learn that information was still being stolen after the original security crackdown by the military.

"I have to be concerned," he said. "It seems that materials of varying degrees of sensitivity are being pilfered from the base and sold in the markets of Bagram."

Lawmakers say they are having difficulty assessing the extent of potential damage from the sale of the drives from Bagram, which houses a detention and interrogation center for terrorism suspects flown in from around the world.

Reed said he was waiting to hear more from the military about steps officials are taking to protect Afghans who had been aiding the U.S. forces.

Rep. Vic Snyder, an Arkansas Democrat who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the thefts have shown the Army one of the "perils of modern warfare."

"The more you are dependent on computers, the more you are at risk of some of the hazards of computers," he said.

Flash memory drives, also called thumb drives or jump drives, are as common in the military as they are in civilian life. Soldiers are supposed to treat drives that hold classified information as sensitively as they would a file folder marked "top secret."

Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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