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The Pentagon leak: how a low-ranked 21-year-old accessed top US secrets

By April 22, 2023June 7th, 2023Mailchimp, News, Papers, Print

As published by Financial Times by in Washington

Thousands of miles from the grim realities of the war that he would upend, the 21-year-old US Air Guardsman accused of leaking hundreds of classified documents was part of a sprawling intelligence network collecting and preparing sensitive information for senior military leaders and other national security officials. Jack Teixeira held one of the military’s lowest enlisted ranks as what was essentially an IT worker in the Massachusetts Air National Guard. Even so, he received a top-secret clearance to maintain and secure the Air Force’s various computer networks, including some of its most sensitive ones. US officials are still assessing how a person so junior could apparently smuggle out and release some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets, but his responsibilities and the ways the US classification system works offer important clues.

Though US army and air national guard units are typically associated with natural disaster response, they spend most of their time helping with overseas operations, former officials said. Teixeira reported to a military base on Cape Cod but he was on active duty and involved in highly sensitive work. Teixeira is being detained in Massachusetts on charges of illegally sharing top-secret national defence information ahead of his next court hearing on Wednesday. Jack Teixeira was taken into custody on April 13 and faces charges of illegally sharing top secret national defence information © WCVB-TV/AP His unit, the 102nd Intelligence Wing, processes intelligence for US military commands and is one of about half a dozen Air National Guard intelligence units carrying out similar work, according to retired lieutenant general L Scott Rice, who oversaw all of the Air National Guard’s units across the US, including the 102nd. “It’s a big pipeline of data,” Rice said. Teixeira’s unit and others like it review intelligence data such as footage from US aircraft and package it for military officials and others.

A defence official said: “It’s real-time gathering intelligence and putting it together in ways that can be used by commanders.” On Tuesday, the Air Force said it ordered the 102nd Intelligence Wing to halt its mission as the service investigates the leak of classified information. Its duties have been temporarily reassigned to other Air Force units. Rice said Cyber transport systems journeymen such as Teixeira must secure networks, servers and individual computers; make sure hardware is connected and working; install appropriate software to protect computers and systems; and ensure that information is transmitted smoothly. While Teixeira is not believed to have directly prepared any intelligence, he was apparently able to access and print it without triggering alarm bells, even in a role one former intelligence official likened to that of a janitor. “We’ve got low-level people who have had to access stuff because we’re not going to have a four-star general emptying waste baskets and cleaning desks,” the former official said.

Pentagon officials said thousands of people had access to the sensitive documents that Teixeira allegedly shared. A 2019 report to Congress indicated more than 1mn people had access to top secret information and more than 1.5mn people had lower level clearances granting sensitive access. One challenge for the Pentagon is that its ranks are largely made up of young people — more than two-thirds of active-duty service members are 30 or under — who increasingly live online, particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic left many feeling isolated. “The vast majority of our military is young and it’s not exceptional that young people are doing important things in our military, that’s really not the issue,” Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, said on Wednesday. “The issue is how you responsibly execute or carry out your duties and how you protect the information.

All of us have a requirement to do that and supervisors have a responsibility to make sure that’s being done.” Teixeira, who joined the military in 2019 and received his security clearance in 2021, shared conservative views on politics, guns and religion with other video gamers on the Discord messaging platform. His desire to curry favour with his internet friends apparently drove him to share hundreds of highly classified documents. Jack Reed, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview that many of those who leaked classified information in the past had political or financial motivations.

In Teixeira’s case, however, it appears he was “trying to impress the gang”, highlighting possible generational differences that the military must consider. “That’s something we have to build into our systems” for approving, clearing and monitoring people with security clearances, Reed said, adding that the administration is expected to brief the Senate about the leak later this week. Glenn Gerstell, who was general counsel of the National Security Agency from 2015 to 2020, said it was unlikely Teixeira had undergone a polygraph test to receive his clearance but, even if he did, investigators are limited in what they can ask. “The government, for privacy and civil liberties reasons, doesn’t ask questions that could be viewed as political,” Gerstell said.

“We get into very difficult areas, we can’t make job decisions on just [a view that] this guy is awfully conservative, maybe he really likes guns; he likes body armour so maybe we shouldn’t hire him.” Faced with challenges meeting its recruiting goals, the military has turned to Discord and other platforms popular with video game fans to reach more would-be recruits. The US Army maintains a Discord channel with more than 70,000 members aimed at bringing the military’s gamers together and connecting interested people with recruiters. Jack Reed, chair of the Senate armed services committee, said Teixeira appeared to be ‘trying to impress the gang’ © Al Drago/Bloomberg Teixeira’s leaks have prompted the US government to launch several probes to determine how it shares information and who can access it, as well as how the disclosures may have harmed national security. John Kirby, the US National Security Council spokesperson, on Monday said the review could include how people are processed for security clearances and whether information is distributed too widely.

After September 11 2001, the US government widened access to intelligence information, after a commission concluded officials had not been able to “connect the dots” ahead of the attacks. Some current and former US officials said it may be time to reassess those changes while still making sure people had the information they need to do their jobs. Teixeira probably had access to a top secret US network known as JWICS, or the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communication System, current and former officials said, adding that the leaked documents appeared to be accessible there. “Far too many people have access to highly exquisite discrete pieces of our intelligence networks,” a second defence official said. “That’s a real problem after Snowden, it’s a lesson we should have learned after Manning,” the official added, referencing leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning: “It’s a lesson we never wrapped our heads around.”

Recommended Person in the News Jack Teixeira, the airman accused of spilling US intelligence secrets For others, the revelation also highlighted the perils of over-classification of intelligence, which has long been debated by lawmakers and transparency advocates who say the US classifies too much information to avoid accountability. Mick Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official and retired CIA paramilitary officer, said the US should rethink how it classifies documents. “The over-classification of documents, especially up to the top secret level, creates a situation where more people have to receive that high level of clearance to do their job,” he said. “There needs to be a review of why a document was originally classified a particular way and who actually needs a top-secret clearance and reduce the over 1mn people that currently have it.”