Voices from across the political spectrum are demanding to know how 21-year-old National Guardsman Jack Teixeira even allegedly had access to top-secret classified documents on the war in Ukraine, imperiling the safety of Ukrainian troops—not to mention allied unity—and giving a priceless gift to Vladimir Putin when he needed it most.
“I’m stunned by this,” former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson under the Obama Administration said on Sunday, while Republican Senator Lindsey Graham commented: “I am stunned that somebody at that level could have so much access … some people need to be fired over this.”
Just this morning, Congressman Jim Himes, who serves on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, said that “it is almost inconceivable that this particular individual A) had access to the information, B) that the individual was able to print this stuff out and take it away and photograph it. And then finally, in a world of very advanced technology, that apparently this stuff could live on the internet and various chat rooms and be viewed by people quite possibly for weeks or months before the Department of Defense became aware of it being in the wild in the first week of April.” Defenders of the intelligence community will point out that much of the real work in intelligence—particularly in supporting warfighters and decision makers—is actually driven by junior enlisted and officers. They are the ones that heroically assemble briefing books, collect and review material, and ensure that senior intelligence officials are well briefed. Intelligence chiefs are not keeping the books, collecting the data, or running the models: they are consuming the information that comes up within the organization. Access by up to a million pairs of eyes seems a tad reckless and needless, but to rip out the junior analysts would mean the whole workflow would fall apart.
Defenders will also point out the context of how we got here: after the 9/11 Commission found that one of the major reasons we had such a massive intelligence failure before the attack was that intelligence was not being shared quickly and efficiently within our government, the U.S. moved toward the opposite pole, adapting intelligence infrastructure to allow for the flow of intelligence across agencies and the military and allowing for more eyes than ever before on the most sensitive secrets.
But there is something obviously broken systemically within the intelligence community that allows for three major national security intelligence leaks in less than a decade, including fellow IT systems administrator Edward Snowden’s infamous trove to Chelsea Manning’s Wikileaks document dump. Even if the Manning leak was 750,000 pages compared to the hundreds of pages in this case, any leak is unacceptable and can put sources, methods, and lives at risk. Three times is enough. The challenge for the government now is to channel its outrage into an actionable set of steps to ensure Teixeira’s leak is the last for a very long time.
Here are some of the most urgent questions that the intelligence community needs to address to fix a broken system:
1. Accessibility – Who has access to information, and why?
It seems “need-to-know” has evolved into “want-to-know.” In each of the Teixeira, Snowden, and Manning leaks, none of these traitorous hangers-on had jobs anywhere related to intelligence analysis and the decision-making process, and yet each had seemingly unlimited access to a smorgasbord of classified intelligence.
Indeed, there is something that is ridiculously pathetic about this latest saga, almost too ridiculous to imagine up were it not true: somehow, this extremely junior enlisted barely old enough to drink alcohol, fresh out of high school, was able to obtain regular access to some of the nation’s most sensitive top-secret classified documents. Teixeira reportedly had no ulterior motive for leaking the documents other than to show off to a virtual video game chatroom of loners seeking friends in youthful immaturity.
Not only does it appear that one can have the résumé of a Walmart greeter and gain access to the country’s most sensitive information, but it seems Gmail does a better job of locking out unwitting users who have forgotten their passwords than the federal government seems to do of walling off highly sensitive information. Intelligence leaders should redesign processes to restrict access to information to a genuine “need-to-know” basis to limit unnecessary sharing of sensitive information. In no other organizations are such tangential figures provided as vast high-level information and access to secrets. Now is the time for the government to fix these fundamental flaws with the protection of classified information.
2. Transportability – How is it so easy to smuggle out classified documents?
Teixeira allegedly smuggled classified printouts by folding them up to fit in his pant pockets, then taking surreptitious snapshots of them once outside sensitive compartmentalized information facilities (SCIFs). If it is really this easy for a guileless 21-year-old to smuggle classified papers out into the open, only to be discovered when the documents later circulated online, how many other individuals might have carried away classified documents—whether accidentally or intentionally—escaping all scrutiny? One cannot even walk out of a public library carrying library books this easily. There needs to be better guardrails and protections to ensure classified material stays behind close doors. Some balance between stronger administrative procedures and stronger accountability for personal trust needs to be struck which is not overly reliant on either to the detriment of the other.
3. Detectability and Accountability – How does the intelligence community monitor and track the distribution of classified information that’s out in the public?
The fact that these leaked documents were reportedly public for over a month on video game chat servers without drawing any attention it appears from the federal government—the government seems to have only responded after Twitter and media commentators picked up on the leak widely—suggests there are gaping holes in security protocol for tracking the handling and distribution of classified material.
The wide-ranging nature of these disclosures has already been well-established. Teixeira’s documents included troop movements on Ukrainian battlefields and private assessments of Ukrainian military capabilities, briefings intended for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, databases of weapons and munition inventories, intelligence channels into Russia, and much more. How can the federal government allow for such a vast array of classified material to float online without even a smidgeon of scrutiny? Perhaps they overlooked obscure video game chatroom servers on Discord, but it is pushing our luck to hope that the FSB and other rival countries’ intelligence agencies are just as hapless in not discovering these documents for months until they became outdated.
4. Vetting and Ongoing Monitoring – What do we know about individuals who have access to classified information?
The CIA and FBI both experienced embarrassing and highly damaging security breaches with Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, respectively, both of whom were discovered to be spying for Russia. What followed were increased security measures to protect against insider threats, including investigations into finances and travel of employees and routine polygraphs of individuals. The military has high standards for entry and conduct, but that is not a replacement for thorough and ongoing vetting of employees who have clearances. And while First Amendment rights must be balanced against national security concerns, the Teixeira case suggests that the military may need to keep better tabs on what social media and internet platforms personnel with clearances are accessing, perhaps through disclosure requirements.
5. Addressing extremist views – What do military personnel believe?
Immediately after being appointed, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered immediate changes to combat extremism in the military, an initiative that was long overdue considering four times as many people with military backgrounds have been arrested for extremist crimes over the last decade than in the decade prior. However, Austin’s efforts have encountered resistance from conservatives in Congress, who in 2022 called on the Pentagon to “immediately halt” counter-extremist programs in a report which accompanied the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. The most recent leaks reveal that playing politics with extremists in the military is no longer an option: Teixeira allegedly held racist, antisemitic, and anti-government views, and he found a community of like-minded individuals in the chat room where he held court. Such behavior has no place in our military and presents a clear and present national security threat.
The U.S. has had to contend with three destructive leaks of sensitive information over a decade from low-level malcontents who had no business accessing any of the information they had access to. It is past time for the intelligence community to fix a broken system.
Benjamin Franklin warned facetiously, “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Surely, 290 years later, we can do better.