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Massive Classified Document Leak Raises Questions About How Carefully The US Guards Its Secrets

  • The Pentagon will have to investigate conditions allowing Airman Jack Teixeira to leak reams of classified intelligence documents from an Air National Guard base in Massachusetts, experts told the DCNF.
  • However, the experts cautioned against jumping to conclusions, saying issues like over-distribution of classified information, personnel policies and physical security checks could be unique to Teixeira’s situation.
  • Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall told Congress Tuesday he directed the Inspector General to probe “anything associated with this leak that could have gone wrong.”

The Pentagon will have its hands full uncovering security vulnerabilities that may have played a part in encouraging the massive classified document leak from Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts over the past several months, according to military and intelligence experts.

Airman Jack Teixeira performed maintenance on sensitive information systems at Otis within Joint Base Cape Cod while allegedly printing and taking home reams of highly classified intelligence allegedly from January to at least March of 2023. The Biden administration says it has taken steps to improve intelligence protection measures, but experts pointed to the risk of more leaks in the future if the Air Force, Department of Defense (DOD) and Congress do not address issues like over-distribution of classified information, personnel policies and physical security checks.

“This is not just a story about someone who betrayed the country and released government secrets. This is also a story about a Department of Defense that is unable to even protect its own secrets,” Jeremy Hunt, a media fellow at the Hudson Institute, chairman of the board of directors at Vets on Duty and former active duty military intelligence officer, told the DCNF.

Too Many People, Too Much Access

DOD has “an over-distribution problem where way too many people have way too much access to highly classified, sensitive information,” Hunt said.

More than 1.6 million U.S. government employees have security clearances that allow them access to secret or top secret information, according to a 2020 report from the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

Some reports suggest Teixeira was able to enter the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communication System (JWICS), a secure intranet that hosts portals to information hubs from U.S. intelligence agencies, according to The New York Times. However, DOD monitors activity on JWICS, including whatever information is accessed, downloaded and printed, according to Politico.

Lawmakers expressed shock at the ability of a 21-year-old airman with the rank of E-3 to access and manage secure networks hosting some of the most sensitive intelligence at a Senate defense appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday.

“How could this guardsman take this information and distribute it electronically for weeks, if not months, and nobody knew about it?” Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana asked the Air Force officials testifying.

“Unfortunately, this individual, whatever else, had no reason to be in possession of these documents,” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall told Congress.

An affidavit filed at the time of Teixeira’s arrest found probable cause to believe the airman illegally possessed and distributed Top Secret (TS) intelligence and Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) to those not authorized to view it. The affidavit also confirmed speculation that at least some of the documents appeared to be briefing materials intended to inform the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.

“He had access to some aspects based on his job as a cyber administrator. He took advantage of that access,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C. Q. Brown said at the same hearing.

Kendall said he directed the Air Force Inspector General to probe “anything associated with this leak that could have gone wrong.” On top of the inspector general’s review, the Air Force is looking into how each command safeguards classified information, according to Brown.

The Secretary of Defense ordered the intelligence and security division of the Pentagon to provide a report within 45 days on ways to improve practices for protecting classified information and has already restricted the number of people who have access to various email chains and related to the protection of classified information, Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said Monday.

Watching Personnel

One problem, according to Retired Col. Jeffrey Fischer, who previously served as executive assistant to the NATO Special Operations Headquarters Commander, is that Teixeira’s rank and compensation — equivalent to about $2,500 monthly for an active duty E-3 — were not commensurate to the degree of responsibility his position entailed.

“More importantly, I think the 21-year-old shock and ‘we need to look into it’ political diatribe is theater,” Fischer told the DCNF.

“Nearly every U.S. Congressman has been in a military SCIF [sensitive compartmented information facility]. Did they question the 20-something kid helping facilitate a briefing or pat him on the back and give him a coin? My experience says the latter,” he added.

Drawing on his time in Army intelligence, Hunt said it could be expected for anyone exiting a SCIF to be subject to bag searches and similar precautions.

That’s not to say a case like Teixeira’s couldn’t happen again, according to experts.

“I think there’s a chance,” Fischer told the DCNF.

The Biden administration and law enforcement have already delved into any contact Teixeira may have had with foreign nationals, three people familiar with the investigation told Politico on condition of anonymity. Foreign connections could indicate that a hostile government recruited Teixeira to disclose the intelligence for purposes of harming the U.S., but so far, there’s no evidence that occurred, the people said.

A member of the private social media discussion board said Teixeira originally wrote up documents in text format, according to the affidavit. However, in or near January 2023 he began uploading photographs of documents containing markings of government classification levels and detailing sensitive information of interest to the Pentagon, such as the distribution and strength of the Ukrainian armed forces.

At that time, Teixeira apparently switched from typing up the information while in the workplace to printing the documents and smuggling them home, the affidavit shows. DOD granted Teixeira a TS/SCI security clearance in 2021.

“According to a U.S. Government Agency, which has access to logs of certain document Teixeira access, Teixeira accessed the Government Document in February 2023,” the affidavit states.

“In addition, according to a second U.S. Government Agency, which can monitor certain searches conducted on its classified networks, on April 6, 2023, Teixeira used his government computer to search classified intelligence reporting for the word ‘leak,’” the affidavit continued, suggesting the defendant was openly looking for any signs the federal government had uncovered his identity after the documents were made known to the wider public.

Much Is Still Unknown

Former CIA Moscow Station Chief Daniel Hoffman cautioned against drawing too many inferences from what is known of the investigation so far. We still have incomplete information about the conditions unique to Otis, he said.

“I don’t know what is normal,” he told the DCNF.

DOD needs to find answers to questions such as whether breakdown in command occurred at the base, whether suspicious patterns of behavior or traces of abnormal digital activity were overlooked and the potential for adversaries to take advantage of weak protection measures, Hoffman said. Until then, too much is speculation.

Meanwhile, the Air Force barred Teixeira’s unit from its normal duties, which included “worldwide precision intelligence and command and control,” according to the website.

“The 102nd Intelligence Wing is not currently performing its assigned intelligence mission. The mission has been temporarily reassigned to other organizations within the Air Force,” the command told The Associated Press in a statement.

The Air Force did not respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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