[Editor’s note: for further analysis on this topic, see Brianna Rosen’s article here].
The unauthorized disclosure of classified documents from Massachusetts Air National Guard member Jack Teixeira represents a significant security breach for the U.S. Intelligence Community. On Friday, Teixeria appeared before the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, where he is facing charges for leaking classified information on an online gaming platform.
In the wake of the revelations, Just Security asked top experts and former senior intelligence officials to assess the damage from the Teixeira breach and implications for national security.
Robert Litt, former General Counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence under the Obama administration:
The recent arrest of a 21-year-old National Guardsman for leaking classified documents has raised a number of questions that illustrate the tensions under which the Intelligence Community operates. People have wondered why sensitive information about the Ukraine conflict, Chinese spy balloons, and internal Russian political dynamics was shared with the Massachusetts Air National Guard. But in the aftermath of 9/11, there was tremendous pressure to ease and broaden the flow of intelligence information, both to enable analysts to “connect the dots” and to ensure that agencies charged with protecting national security were fully informed about present and future threats. People have wondered why it took several months after the release of some documents on a social media platform for the authorities to discover them. But privacy and civil liberties concerns appropriately limit the ability of government authorities to monitor postings on social media in the absence of concrete evidence of wrongdoing – particularly social media sites that are not open to the general public. And people have expressed astonishment that, yet again, a leaker has slipped through the security clearance process. Yet with over 1 million people having Top Secret security clearances, even a clearance system that is 99.99% perfect – a degree of perfection that is unimaginable for human processes – there would be over 100 security risks with access to top secret information.
In the aftermath of the leaks, there should be a sober and penetrating review of information sharing, of the number of people with security clearances, of implementation of existing policies regarding “need to know,” and of monitoring of classified systems. But it will be important not to overcorrect and take steps that either burden civil liberties or impede effective intelligence gathering, analysis, and dissemination.
Mary McCord, Executive Director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (@GeorgetownICAP) and former Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the U.S. Department of Justice:
The Teixeira case raises a number of red flags. First, did Teixeira actually have a “need to know” the information to which he was provided access? Even with the proper clearances, access is supposed to be limited to those with a need to know. Providing technical support to the classified communications systems for the Air National Guard should not establish a need to know the content of the classified information on those systems. The Department of Defense should examine its practices for granting clearances and providing access to highly classified information to those whose jobs are to make sure the computer systems work properly, but who otherwise do not have a need to know the content of the information flowing over those systems.
Second, the casualness with which Teixeira felt he could ignore the lifelong non-disclosure agreements he signed in order to obtain access to highly classified information warrants a review of how the Air National Guard – and the military more generally – trains its members about the importance of complying with classified information procedures, how and to whom the clearances are granted, and how read-ins to special access programs are conducted. This review should also consider the age and maturity of those to whom we are entrusting information which, if disclosed, could cause exceptionally grave harm to our nation’s security. Teixeira’s choice of a gaming platform to make disclosures to a group of boys some of whom may not even have been old enough to enlist in the military, in an apparent attempt to impress them, underscores this point.
Finally, reporting about Teixeira’s racist and anti-Semitic statements and actions, including an alleged video of him shouting these types of statements before shooting a rifle, is reason to review how the Air National Guard – and, again, the military more generally – is recruiting and training its volunteers and enlistees. There is no place in our military for those whose extremist views undermine the mission of the branch in which they seek to serve. The Teixeira case is a wake-up call. Our nation’s security demands that it be heeded.
John Sipher (@john_sipher), 28-year CIA veteran with multiple tours overseas as Chief of Station and Deputy Chief of Station in Europe, Asia, and in high-threat environments:
The recent leak of intelligence relating to the war in Ukraine has provided some interesting – if not surprising – findings. For example, some of the documents have highlighted sensitive signals intelligence that there is increased infighting among Russian military and political officials.
For students of Russia such infighting is nothing new. Even in the best of times, Russian officials seem to be particularly skilled at undercutting each other. Also, over recent years Putin has become adept at using the classic practice of divide and rule. If an official or organization appears to be gaining strength inside the system, they can expect to be cut down to size. Dictators cannot tolerate anyone gaining any kind of authority that might be seen as a political threat.
In such a system (well, in any system), those responsible for military and strategic failures need to shift blame to others. The Kremlin has engaged formal and informal actors, as well as covert and overt units in an effort to destroy Ukraine. All have failed and all need to find a way to cover their backsides.
In normal times, our diplomats and intelligence operatives only gain glimpses of the internal machinations of key Kremlin insiders. Times of war however, provide our intelligence professionals a much wider array of targets to inspect and analyze. Military and political commanders must communicate in a rushed and chaotic manner which allows more opportunities for collection. Indeed, the recent reports of infighting seem to derive from signals intercepts.
While the leak of the intelligence is unfortunate, it is unlikely to lead to a loss of collection across the board. Politicians, commanders, and soldiers cannot easily change their equipment and procedures in a time of war, and the worse things get on the ground, the greater the need to shift the blame to others.
Erik Dahl (@ErikJDahl1), associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and faculty member of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security:
This case appears in many ways to be even more dangerous for American intelligence and national security than previous leaks such as Snowden and Manning. From what we know so far, this appears to be a case of a knucklehead with a clearance, and such a person can be much more difficult to detect and track than traditional leakers, who are typically motivated by factors such as ideology, politics, or money.
Counterintelligence efforts can detect internal threats such as leakers at three different stages. First, before the person is granted a clearance and access to secrets, the security investigation and clearance approval process is designed to detect potential danger signs from someone’s past behavior and statements. Second, while the person is working in a position of trust — whether as a member of the military, a civilian employee, or a contractor — there are systems such as periodic clearance reviews designed to spot warning signs that might develop. And third, security systems are in place to detect loss of classified material and other internal threats as soon as possible, in order to contain the threat and identify the persons responsible.
All of these security systems are designed to detect traditional threats, such as insiders who voice extremist or violent views or who communicate with known terrorist groups or foreign security services. And all three of these systems appeared to have failed in this case, in which the offender appears to have been a low-level insider with no ideological or political axe to grind, and who was not motivated by traditional factors such money.
Asha Rangappa (@AshaRangappa_), Senior Lecturer at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and former Special Agent in the New York office of the FBI:
The question that the Texeira case raises is how many cases like his do we NOT know about? Surely he was not the only junior officer in the military who had access to such sensitive material, and he had no problem bringing these documents home. These individuals would be low-hanging fruit for intelligence services seeking to recruit sources; those who might be motivated by financial incentives, rather than narcissism like Texeira, could very well be passing our secrets directly to our adversaries instead of posting them online.
Alex Finley (@alexzfinley), former officer of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, where she served in West Africa and Europe:
For me, the biggest takeaway is that the government needs to revisit its clearance process and stop handing out Top Secret access like it is candy at Halloween. Getting a clearance has become a bureaucratic process, rather than a common sense process. Issues such as Teixeira’s anti-government views are not likely to manifest themselves on a form, and too many people hold high-level clearances. Lastly, we need to rethink sharing. After 9/11, sharing intelligence widely became a mantra, and rightly so. But perhaps some sharing needs to be reined in.