Why a Missing Laptop Makes Albright Mad

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Remember the tools of the Cold War-era spy — microfilm, paper files stamped "Top Secret" and "dead drops" in tree stumps? Well, the people charged with protecting U.S. intelligence probably wish those good old days were still here in the wake of the latest revelations about a missing laptop computer belonging to the State Department. The machine is said to have contained highly sensitive files, including intelligence sources and information about weapons proliferation. Though it is still unclear whether the laptop in question was stolen or lost, the case has drawn attention to the plight of government secrets in the computer age. One the one hand, the digital revolution has made information considerably easier to transfer and access; on the other, it's making information ... easier to transfer and access. And that can spell bad news when you're charged with guarding computer files that contain lists of American spies and other secrets. Thus the disappearance of the laptop, which contained information classified as "code word" — more important than "top secret" — from the supposedly secure State Department building proved the final straw in leading Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to overhaul security in the department.

"This was a basic case of security mechanisms that were not being followed or a department that was systematically ill-equipped to provide proper security," says TIME State Department Correspondent Massimo Calabresi. "But it also shows the larger new security problem presented by computers in general, which is their remote accessibility." On Monday, two months after the computer's disappearance, and roughly a week after news of the disappearance became public, Albright announced that she was removing security responsibility from the department's Intelligence and Research Bureau and handing it to another section, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. "There is a long-running internal battle between Intelligence and Research and Diplomatic Security over who controls this sort of information," notes Calabresi. "Now Diplomatic Security has clearly won."