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Mishandling Sensitive Data – The John Deutch CIA Case

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Mishandling Sensitive Data – The John Deutch CIA Case

john deutch cia case

In 1996, only days after Director of Central Intelligence John M. Deutch left his post at the CIA, security experts at the Agency discovered that Deutch’s government owned computer that he had kept stored at his Bethesda, Maryland residence actually held classified material.

Deutch’s post at the CIA from 1995 through 1996 marked a period in history when the Internet was in full growth mode, and many people – particularly those Deutch’s age – were not completely cognizant of the tremendous security dangers posed by this brave new online world. Unfortunately, Deutch’s lax attitude in carrying classified information in and out of Agency walls represents one of the more dangerous threats to national security at the time – the vulnerability of the nation’s secrets in the hands of men who were, for the most part, technically naive.

Deutch’s actions were eventually reported to the Department of Justice, and an investigation was launched into his mishandling of classified information.

Security Mishaps

The security mistakes that Deutch made during his brief post as DCI were plentiful. A report released by the CIA in February of 2000 revealed that Deutch had transferred a virtual file cabinet full of classified files on nothing less than loose floppy disks. The data consisted of seventy-four files and hundreds of pages of classified information.

To make matters worse, not only did Deutch transfer the classified material to his government-owned computer at home, but then he used that same computer to access pornography – the sort of sites that are notorious for hiding malware and viruses created by both malicious hackers as well as foreign spies intent on landing a “big fish” with one of their spyware viruses.

This threat was very real. In fact, the CIA director at the time, George Tenet, told the press that he really couldn’t guarantee that the material handled by Deutch hadn’t been compromised.

john deutch cia case

Absolved of All Blame

The Department of Justice investigation ramped up in 2000. Prosecutors collected an overwhelming volume of information detailing not only Deutch’s mishandling of information at the CIA but also at his former Pentagon post.

Early in 2001, prosecutors were actually negotiating with Deutch’s lawyers to obtain a guilty plea for a misdemeanor of “keeping U.S. secrets on a home computer”. The deal would have resulted in no prison time, but he would likely lose his ability to obtain government security clearances forever. CIA Director George Tenet had already revoked Deutch’s security clearances in 1999.

With a last-minute surprise pardon in January of 2001, President Clinton released John Deutch from any further responsibility for his mishandling of classified information. Deutch received not even a slap on the wrist.

What was especially surprising about the pardon is that it excused a litany of very serious mistakes that compromised CIA secrets.

–> Deutch stored classified CIA files on an unclassified Macintosh computer and its peripherals – including four PCMCIA cards, two of which were sitting right in the open on Deutch’s desk.

–> The Macintosh computer had applications that allowed it access to the Internet via a modem. Deutch had used the same computer to access a DoD unclassified e-mail system, and Deutch’s own online banking system.

–> Upon further investigation, security experts also discovered classified documents stored on hard drives in addition to the PCMCIA cards.

The evidence revealed that Deutch paid little attention to security classifications when handling classified materials in his CIA office and in his home – transferring sensitive information stored in flash drives in his pockets as though he were carrying nothing more than drives with his own personal files.

Placing those classified files onto computers with direct Internet access begs the question – how did Deutch even get security clearances in the first place, and did he at least receive training about the security threats posed by the Internet?

john deutch cia case

Unanswered Questions

These are questions that will likely go unanswered, thanks to Clinton’s pardon of John Deutch in 2001. Ironically enough, John Deutch now works as an emeritus Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It can probably be assumed that he has finally figured out the security dangers posed by the Internet by now.

However, what is troubling is the list of posts he held prior to the Pentagon and the CIA – posts where he likely also carried around and potentially compromised additional secrets. These posts included:

–> Served on the President’s Nuclear Safety Oversight Committee from 1980 to 1981
–> President’s Commission on Strategic Forces in 1983
–> White House Science Council from 1985 to 1989
–> President’s Intelligence Advisory Board from 1990 to 1993
–> Deputy Secretary of Defense from 1994 to 1995
–> President’ Commission on Aviation Safety and Security in 1996
–> President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology from 1997 to 2001
–> Chairman of the Commission to Assess the Organization of the Federal Government to Combat the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction from 1998 to 1999.
–> Director of Energy Research, Assistant Secretary for Energy Technology, and undersecretary of the Department of Energy from 1977 to 1980.

From 1977 to 1980, Deutch served in a number of positions for the U.S. Department of Energy: as Director of Energy Research, Acting Assistant Secretary for Energy Technology, and Undersecretary of the Department.

In the irony of all ironies, Deutch actually served on the Commission on Reducing and Protecting Government Secrecy in 1996.

Apparently he didn’t learn very much from the Committee.

Sources and Image Credits:
(2) The Spy Who Stayed Out In The Cold
(3) Asian-American Politics
(4) MIT

Originally published on

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