Agencies reviewing security clearance, classified info policies in wake of damaging leaks

After 21-year-old Jack Teixeira was arrested for allegedly leaking classified info, the Pentagon is looking at what it can do to prevent similar situations in t...

Agencies are tightening access to sensitive intelligence and reviewing their practices around granting security clearances and sharing classified information after a Massachusetts Air National Guardsman was arrested for allegedly leaking highly sensitive information online.

Experts say the case raises important questions about access to classified information, while pointing out that more details are needed to determine exactly what went wrong in the case of the leaks. And some are worried about an overreaction to a situation that’s garnered international attention.

Defense and intelligence agencies are reviewing their policies after the arrest of Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old Air National Guardsman, in connection with online leaks of classified information about the war in Ukraine and other sensitive U.S. intelligence.

In a statement Friday, President Joe Biden said he has “directed our military and intelligence community to take steps to further secure and limit distribution of sensitive information, and our national security team is closely coordinating with our partners and allies.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has directed the under secretary of defense for intelligence and security to “conduct a review of our intelligence access, accountability and control procedures within the department to inform our efforts to prevent this kind of incident from happening again,” the Defense Department noted.

John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, said Biden wants an “interagency” review of security control processes, but he added agencies have the authority to take steps to fit their individual needs.

“One of several things that you would expect that we would look at is the security clearance process and whether or not the way in which people are cleared for access is appropriate,” Kirby told reporters Monday. “Another thing that we might look at, again hypothetically, is the distribution of certain types of classified material. Is it too wide?”

Kirby added that “just because you have a top secret clearance doesn’t mean you get to see everything that’s top secret.”

“It’s about having the clearance and the need to know,” he continued. “And so I think you can expect that we’re going to look and see whether we have that balance right in general.”

But Robert Cardillo, former director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, is concerned about an overreaction to the leaks and the potential rollback of a policy to more widely share intelligence across agencies in the wake of 9/11.

“I suspect that we’re going to make some changes with respect to access at the kind of places where the accused worked, but I hope we don’t go back to that prior era when, at every agency and even within agencies, people treated information access as a source of power, influence control, and then that then gets us back to the disconnected, segregated, and I would argue, ineffective intelligence community,” Cardillo said in an interview.

The FBI’s charging documents state Teixeira worked as a “Cyber Defense Operations Journeyman,” the equivalent of a network technician, for the Air National Guard. Teixeira was granted a top-secret security clearance in 2021, the affidavit continues, and he also had access to sensitive compartmented information.

Investigators will be looking closely at the circumstances around access to the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility at Otis Air National Guard Base in Cape Cod, Mass., where Teixeira is alleged to have accessed the leaked information in his role supporting the 102nd Intelligence Support Squadron.

“Where was the SCIF? What SCIF did he get into? How did he have regular access to that SCIF? What were the procedures of that SCIF whenever individuals were inside of it?” Bishop Garrison, a former senior DoD advisor who now serves as vice president of policy for the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, said in an interview.

Teixeira’s arrest has also raised questions from some quarters about why a relatively junior Guardsman had a top-secret security clearance and access to such sensitive data.

But Lindy Kyzer, a former DoD employee and the director of content for Clearance Jobs, pointed out that it’s common place for younger people, including service members, to hold jobs in the military and intelligence community requiring access to sensitive data.

“There are a number of 18- to 21-year-olds who do have a top secret security clearance, who are performing intelligence functions, who are working with analysts who do see sensitive information, and would never compromise that information,” Kyzer said. “So it’s not an age issue, or a vetting issue.”

Kyzer said her early read on the situation points to a “need for better process around what people have access to, and how that information is controlled and secured.” A report published by ClearanceJobs on Monday found many facility security officers — who are responsible for overseeing the security of classified programs across the country — feel they are overstretched, with 22% saying that they don’t have the technology necessary to do their jobs well.

“When asked for more specifics, they cited a lack of investment in technology and manual
tracking of employees as pain points in the process,” the report states.

Meanwhile, Teixeira is alleged to have first shared classified information and photos of top-secret intelligence products in a private Discord chat, before they were shared more widely across the web. The New York Times and other outlets have reported that Teixeira leaked the documents to impress his small group on Discord.

The details of how Teixeira allegedly gained access to a wide trove of classified material, whether it was appropriate, and how he was able to allegedly post pictures of the material online are now caught up in the FBI’s espionage case against him.

“We have questions about the specifics around how he physically did it . . .  that can help us gain answers on what we need to do moving forward to help prevent this type of activity,” Garrison said. “I want to know more of the facts, both the motivations and physically how he did this.”

As more about the case come to light, Cardillo said he hopes for “balance” and “deep breaths” collectively across Washington.

“Tighten up procedures and practices, reinforce the behaviors that we want,” Cardillo said. “But the whole reason you have an intelligence community is to provide decision advantage, and the way you do that is increments of insight that a person didn’t have before they read a report. So I just don’t want us to overdo it here.”

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