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THE WORLD

Army Moving to Secure Data at Afghan Base

After reports of thefts, the chief of staff says troops are being trained in the proper use and protection of computer memory drives.

April 27, 2006|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Army's chief of staff said Wednesday that he was frustrated by security lapses at Bagram air 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 J. Schoomaker said the Army was trying to improve how soldiers used and secured flash drives.

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

A market for used computer memory drives has sprung up outside the Bagram base. On April 10, The Times reported that drives being sold at a marketplace just outside the base gate contained documents and files labeled as 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, more drives with sensitive data were again being sold at the Bagram bazaar. One smuggler told The Times that he sold four memory drives to a local shopkeeper after a shift change Sunday afternoon.

At the request of military officials, The Times on Wednesday returned the flash drives it had purchased at the Bagram bazaar.

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

The military is "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 they believed the security improvements made after the first disclosures of stolen drives were working.

Schoomaker's comments came as members of Congress said this week that they wanted to learn more about what commanders were 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 information was still being stolen, even 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 the steps officials were taking to protect Afghans who had been aiding U.S. forces.

Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the thefts had 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. "You can really have a lot of stuff walk off in something just 3 inches by an inch [long]."

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 a file folder marked "top secret."

Last year, the Army formed an organization called the OpSec Support Element, which has been assigned to renew attention on security. Army officials said that Schoomaker had begun pushing for a new emphasis on operational security, particularly with electronic data.

Speaking at a breakfast meeting of defense writers on Wednesday, Schoomaker said it was not realistic to stop using technology such as flash drives.

"Cellphones, cellphones that take pictures, all of this stuff including things like thumb drives and flash drives, these are great innovations," he said. "But they have tremendous liabilities."

The general, who is known for occasional folksy metaphors, suggested the military must learn to be more careful with what it puts on the drives, and where the drives are left. "You don't put the family cat," he said, "into the microwave."

Reed, who visited Afghanistan in January, said the military was trying to balance security with economic development. Keeping Afghans off the base would cut them off from an important source of jobs, he said. Nevertheless, Reed said the command needed to find a way to prevent loss of military secrets.

"You have this impetus to employ indigenous workers," Reed said. "But then you have the problem if some of them are engaging in theft. That poses a dilemma. And that is the situation we face right now."

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