Pentagon intelligence breach renews scrutiny over clearances

The arrest of Jack Teixeira in connection with the leak of classified government documents has quickly raised a series of questions, including how a 21-year-old guardsman at a base in Cape Cod had access to such sensitive information.

Authorities arrested Teixeira on Thursday, following a series of reports identifying him as the leader of a group on gamer site Discord, where documents with significant intelligence on adversaries as well as allies were posted in recent months before spilling over onto other social media sites.

Teixeira, who served in 102nd Intelligence Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, was a technology support staffer, a relatively low-ranking position, but one that still came with access to the Pentagon’s Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS), a clearinghouse for intelligence information.

Dozens of pieces of information that appear to come from the database were shared with 20 to 30 members of “Thug Shaker Central,” a group where participants reportedly expressed enthusiasm for guns, racist and antisemitic humor, and devout Catholic views.

The Pentagon has begun culling their distribution lists, but the episode has renewed discussions over how the intelligence community shares information and doles out clearances. 

“There are systems that provide people access, based on the level of classifications that they’ve been provided. And so they can see stuff that they maybe don’t need to know, and I don’t know how you cordon that stuff off. But, we rely on people to honor their clearances. And there’s a lot of people that don’t take it very seriously,” said David Schenker, a former senior State Department and Pentagon official under the Trump and George W. Bush administrations. 

“There’s those people that have grievances and aren’t loyal Americans, and we have to be consistent about throwing the book at these people, but also, maybe do some rethinking about classification and access.”

How security clearance works

Nearly 3 million Americans have a security clearance, while about 1.2 million have access to information that is considered top secret.

In Teixeira’s case, what started as summarizing intelligence reports for his friends on the internet escalated to printing and taking photographs of classified intelligence, including some labeled “NOFORN,” indicating it should not be shared with foreigners.

While printing, photographing and sharing classified information is a crime — Teixeira was arraigned Friday on charges that include the Espionage Act — many were surprised by the ease of doing so and that it went undetected for so long.

Glenn Gerstell, who previously served as the general counsel of the National Security Agency, said Teixeira’s access highlights an issue with JWICS.

“He’d have to log in with his specific credentials, but once he’s in that network, he then would be entitled to see anything that his clearance level allows him to see,” Gerstell said, something that in theory should only allow him to see information on a “need to know” basis relevant to his job.

“It doesn’t sound like that principle was adhered to in this practice,” Gerstell said.

Calls for access reviews

Among the reportedly 300 documents allegedly leaked by Texeira were detailed assessments on Russia’s war in Ukraine, including intimate conversations among high-level Russian officials. Also leaked was intelligence on allies and partners — like Israel, South Korea, Egypt and Turkey — spanning those countries’ domestic issues and their deliberations surrounding Russia and Ukraine.

“Now, how it is that he was able to access such a wide array of materials — even though his job seems to be far more limited — and how it is he was able to print this out without attracting notice; and how it is he was able to walk out the door with copies of these documents on multiple occasions over an extended period of many months is going to be the subject of military inquiry,” Gerstell asked.

Related stories from The Hill

Some lawmakers have already initiated calls to review access.

“There are systemic issues that need to be addressed, including protocols for how intelligence is handled, the security clearance process, and how officials can prevent intelligence leaks like this from ever happening again. Congress will be briefed further and corrective steps will be taken,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Thursday.

Gerstell said the intelligence community has rethought how it shares and relays information in recent years, a result of both prior leaks and major events like 9/11, which spurred agencies to begin sharing more information with partners.

“The national security apparatus realized that we really needed to make information more freely available to more people, to share information, break down walls between the FBI and law enforcement and the intelligence community and one another, and make sure that we can do everything we can to facilitate easy sharing of information. Because you never know what kind of information you need to connect the dots,” he said, something that has had real benefits.

Amid criticism over the handling of Iraq, the intelligence community began to more regularly “show our work,” Gerstell said, offering richer detail about how information was collected, including when it came from human sources, and even direct quotes.

“And you get what we have now, which is a vast amount of detailed information being made available to lots of lots of people, all for very good, rational reasons, Gerstell said.

“That’s the problem. And the pendulum swings back and forth and we’ve gone wildly in favor of excessively available information to too many people, including too much information,” he said.

Monitoring access and beyond

That information is only shared with those who have undergone the lengthy clearance vetting process, one that requires disclosing foreign contacts and in some cases can even include a polygraph. It doesn’t probe a candidate’s private social media history or political views, as the government cannot base hiring decisions on the latter.

But the scrutiny largely ends once an employee has a clearance. 

“The clearance vetting process, even as invasive as it may be, does not generally probe into your personal political views and opinions. While it may become a subject of interest if those views resulted in a person engaging in illegal conduct or otherwise exhibit behavior raising doubts about their trustworthiness, the agencies lack the time, resources and overall interest to dig into social media accounts and personal politics,” Brad Moss, a national security law expert, told The Hill by email.

“The larger issue will be the after-action reports that emerge out of the Government on how this junior level IT official got his hands on all of this classified material and managed to extract it out of secured facilities without anyone noticing.”

Gerstell said while many workplaces in the intelligence community do monitor their employees practices at work, including their printing habits, doing so outside of work could violate employees’ First Amendment rights.

Gaining access to Thug Shaker Central, the private chat group online, would require a warrant, one that could only be gained after demonstrating sufficient cause for the need to obtain such records.

A possible cascade of issues from leaks

But the whole episode demonstrates the ability of one actor to have a serious impact on national security for numerous countries.

“The whole thing is troubling. I mean, so many leaks all the time, but this is incredibly damaging,” said Schenker, noting that the government spends upward of $90 billion a year on intelligence services.

“And it is top notch. And the fact that so many people have access, and so many people have either mental illness or grievances, there’s no way it’s going to be incredibly hard going forward to keep secrets.”

Schenker noted the sharing of secrets can have real world consequences, even deadly ones.

He pointed to the assassination in 2021 of Lokman Slim, a Lebanese columnist, publisher and filmmaker and outspoken critic of the terrorist-designated group Hezbollah.

Between 2010 and 2011, Slim’s name was included in a trove of diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks that discussed his conversations with American diplomats and meetings in Washington, where he provided perspective on Lebanese politics and Hezbollah. The leak of documents led to a series of threats on his life.

“So it does get people killed,” Schenker said of intelligence leaks. “And some of them are Americans. Or some of them are US grant recipients or people the agency has cultivated to be sources.”

Slim was killed in February 2021, shot six times while sitting in his car, three times in the head, The New York Times reported at the time.

“He was my best friend in Lebanon,” Schenker said.

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