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Sloppy presidents saving things for posterity. A secretary of state getting government data forwarded to her private email server. Ideologically motivated leakers Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Reality Winner.
Now, maybe a 21-year-old airman in the Massachusetts Air National Guard, a cyber transport systems specialist, apparently showing off to his teenage gaming buddies online.
If the many earlier and ongoing scandals regarding classified information aren’t a wakeup call that the US government has a problem, maybe the arrest of Jack Teixeira will do the trick.
Wearing a t-shirt, athletic shorts, dark socks and boots, Teixeira surrendered to a heavily armed FBI SWAT team outside his mother’s home on Thursday, as news helicopters hovered overhead.
He’s suspected of leaking classified data that has sent the US intelligence community scrambling, strained relations with foreign governments and jeopardized the valuable line of information that has given Americans insight into Russia’s moves in Ukraine.
But the profile of the suspected leaker that is emerging, and which undoubtedly could change quite a bit as we learn more, is not of a foreign spy or an ideologically motivated whistleblower – but rather, the ringleader of a gaming chatgroup who wanted to impress the teenagers he’d met online during the pandemic.
Those details are from an incredible report in The Washington Post, which published an anonymous interview with a member of the closed group of about two dozen people on the platform Discord, where images of the classified material first appeared.
Serious questions need answering
► Why did Teixeira have access to some of the country’s most sensitive secrets that were apparently prepared for the Defense Department’s most senior uniformed leadership?
► How were photographs of classified data able to be posted to a chatgroup frequented by teenage gamers?
► What justified high level security clearance for a young airman who, according to the young member the Post spoke with, griped about “government overreach” and appeared in videos using racial epithets before firing a large weapon?
► What motivated him?
Some answers are beginning to emerge
First, what did Teixeira do as a cyber transport systems specialist?
That title “is the Air Force recruiter’s way of describing an IT specialist role,” said Christopher Krebs, the former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, during an appearance Thursday on CNN’s “The Lead” with Jake Tapper. “So, these are the folks that design, that deploy the computer systems networks and then maintain them.”
That can include IT systems in both the unclassified and classified space, Krebs said, noting that classified material is usually viewed in an area known as a “Sensitive compartmented information facility,” or SCIF, on a military installation.
How might Teixeira have gotten images of these classified materials? Guessing, Krebs said it is possible Teixeira could have come across some of the classified material that had been discarded, potentially in a burn bag, from a previous briefing.
Those details will have to be learned.
Classified material scandals aplenty
One thing that should be abundantly clear from the string of leaks and improperly handled pieces of classified information beyond this story is that the system has problems.
There are special counsels actively investigating both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump for potentially mishandling classified materials found at their homes. In Biden’s case, those documents were from his time as vice president, while the documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort were found after he left the White House.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that witnesses questioned as part of the Trump investigation have been asked if he was showing off a map with sensitive intelligence information.
Those investigations follow the email server that dogged former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016 and the leaks by former National Security Agency subcontrator turned Russian Edward Snowden, who leaked documents about a massive US government surveillance program; the former US Army soldier now known as Chelsea Manning, who leaked information about US military conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the former NSA translator Reality Winner, who leaked a report about Russian election meddling in the US.
“They continue to lock down the systems over time after they learn from each new vulnerability,” CNN correspondent Josh Campbell, who covers national security and law enforcement, said on Thursday.
Campbell, a former FBI supervisory special agent, also noted the military has come under some scrutiny because, while it employs the largest number of people with security clearances, it does not subject them to the same rigorous reauthorization as other agencies, which routinely require people to go “on the box,” Campbell said, and pass a polygraph.
‘Not concerned about the leak’
The Pentagon documents leaks should not cause alarm, President Joe Biden said during an appearance in Ireland Thursday.
“I’m not concerned about the leak,” Biden said. “I’m concerned that it happened, but there’s nothing contemporaneous that I’m aware of that is of any consequence.”
Already, after these most recent leaks, there have been changes at the Pentagon. CNN reported Thursday that some US officials who used to receive the briefing materials daily have stopped receiving them in recent days.
Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut said these repeated problems will have an effect on US allies.
“I would forgive the South Koreans or the Israelis or the French or whoever from saying we may not be able to share our most sensitive information with the Americans because they can’t seem to keep it out of 21-year-olds’ hands or ex-presidents’ garages or people named Reality Winner or whatever,” he told Tapper.
More than a million people have Top Secret clearance
As What Matters first reported last August, when classified documents were found by the FBI at Mar-a-Lago, it’s actually a very large universe of people with access to Top Secret data.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence publishes what is described as an annual report, “Security Clearance Determinations,” although the most recent one I could find was from fiscal year 2017.
In it, more than 2.8 million people are described as having security clearance as of October 2017 – more than 1.6 million with access to either Confidential or Secret information and nearly 1.2 million with access to Top Secret information.
There are additional people who have security clearance but don’t currently have access to information. This includes civilian employees, contractors and members of the military.
A set of keys to the classified information
The Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, compared the method by which classified information is stored to a locked house where people with clearance can get a key. Abusing that clearance, Ryder said, is a “a deliberate criminal act.”
David Priess, the former CIA intelligence briefer, carried on the keys analogy as he tried to explain the need for accountability here.
“The idea is, you give people the keys to the rooms in the house where they need to access that information,” Priess said on CNN Thursday. “There are going to be legitimate questions about how many keys did this individual have? How many rooms was he allowed to go into to take things out of as part of his job? And did he really need that as part of his job?”
Campbell said it’s important not to assume Teixeira’s young age should be a factor.
“I can tell you firsthand that there are young people in the military that do incredible work in the intelligence field around the world,” Campbell said.
Overclassification is also a problem
But at the top levels of government there is already acknowledgment that the system needs to change. The Biden administration has considered updating regulations to cut down on how much information is classified.
CIA Director Bill Burns said Tuesday, while speaking at an event at Rice University in Texas, that he believes there is a “serious problem of over-classification” in the US government and that lessons also need to be learned from this latest leak.
“Are there things we need to do better? Of course,” Burns said. “I think there is a serious problem of over classification sometimes in the US government .. which I think needs to be taken on.”