Pentagon Typo Puts Military Communications in Hands of Russian Ally

U.S. soldiers north of Baghdad, Iraq (Reuters)
July 17, 2023

A typo frequently made by military officials has put millions of sensitive U.S. emails in the hands of an African country allied with Russia.

The U.S. military uses the email domain name ".MIL," which is sometimes misspelled as ".ML," the registered domain for the nation of Mali in West Africa. Emails intended to reach Pentagon officials, some containing diplomatic documents, tax returns, travel information, and other sensitive details, have mistakenly reached email accounts in Mali when the domain is misspelled, according to a report from the Financial Times.

The issue was first discovered a decade ago by a Dutch internet entrepreneur, Johannes Zuurbier, who has a contract to manage Mali's domain. Zuurbier has warned the U.S. government of the issue and recently increased his efforts as his contract ends this week, after which the information will go back to the Malian government, a close ally of the Kremlin.

"This risk is real and could be exploited by adversaries of the US," Zuurbier said in a letter to the United States, according to the Financial Times.

Zuurbier said he has collected more than 100,000 emails since January to show the United States the magnitude of the problem. He collected almost 1,000 emails in just one day last week. He said there are millions in the system from over the years.

The Pentagon confirmed the problem, saying it implemented controls to stop the misdirected emails from being sent.

"The Department of Defense is aware of this issue and takes all unauthorized disclosures of Controlled National Security Information or Controlled Unclassified Information seriously,"
the Pentagon told Fox News. "DoD has implemented policy, training, and technical controls to ensure that emails from the '.mil' domain are not delivered to incorrect domains. Such emails are blocked before they leave the .mil domain and the sender is notified that they must validate the email addresses of the intended recipients."

The Pentagon added that it is, however, not possible to "implement technical controls preventing the use of personal email accounts for government business."

Mali's connections with U.S. adversaries could prove problematic when the African officials get their hands on the U.S. data. Fighters from Russia's paramilitary Wagner Group have operated in Mali for more than a year to help the country combat insurgent groups. The United States has accused Russia of using Mali as a transit hub to get weapons to Ukraine.