The scandal surrounding the disclosure of secret Pentagon documents is puzzling, and not just because of the alleged perpetrator’s extremely risky behavior. It also reveals a lack of prudence among the political leadership in Washington.
The alleged perpetrator of the leak in the Pentagon is behind bars but America can breathe only half a sigh of relief. The arrest of the 21-year-old Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira gives us reason to believe that the hole has been identified and that no further state secrets will continue to leak. Moreover, all indications are that he was acting alone and with a mixture of carelessness, mistrust of the state and desire for recognition — not with the intention of betraying his country. In this case, there was obviously no foreign power leading a sophisticated spy operation.
Still, the scandal is far from over. The damage is significant, and its extent is still not really known. Secret details about arming military forces for a planned Ukrainian counteroffensive have been made public. Now, Russia also knows where American spies are listening in to its security apparatus. Ukraine, on the other hand, faces the dilemma of being dependent on close collaboration with the U.S. but unable to trust the discretion of its protector on the other side of the Atlantic. All of this will have consequences that will become apparent only over time.
When ‘Top Secret’ Is Not Top Secret
The search for guilty parties cannot end with Teixeira. At the center of the affair is the question of why the Pentagon granted a simple national guardsman who is barely of legal age access to top secret military information. Apparently, Teixeira, who officially entered active duty with the Air National Guard just a year and a half ago, could access the database of the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System. This Pentagon network is available not only to military leadership, it seems, but to thousands of others, including low-ranking analysts and service personnel. As an IT specialist, Teixeira was presumably involved with the database for reasons related to working on it.
Still, supposedly, there are protective measures in place to guard against misuse. Time and again, administrations in Washington have promised strict rules governing who can access this treasure trove of state secrets. But now, in a relatively short period, we have the third serious case of secret documents leaking en masse from the Pentagon. In 2010, intelligence agent Chelsea Manning, who was deployed in the war in Iraq, was able to download hundreds of thousands of documents, including some that had nothing to do with her work. In 2013, Edward Snowden, a technician with the National Security Agency, fled overseas with some of the U.S.’ best-guarded secrets.
The current case is different but proves that lessons from the previous two leaks were not effectively learned. The basic principle of need-to-know basis — that only people who need to use certain secret documents have access to them — still does not apply in the U.S.’ massive military apparatus. In addition, monitoring measures clearly failed in the case of Teixeira.
Top secret documents can be viewed only in specially guarded rooms. In theory, this situation allows for three things: first, observation of who calls up which documents; second, prevention of those documents being transferred to another machine; and third, registration of what is printed onto paper. But this insignificant member of the National Guard was still able to print out hundreds of classified documents and smuggle them out of Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts without anyone stopping him. That is a catastrophic failure of the leadership personnel.
Not a Simple Question of Individual Responsibility
The Pentagon’s recent appeal to the sense of duty and individual responsibility of all people with security clearances is not sufficient. It will not have any effect among those who reveal state secrets out of ideological conviction or those who are too immature to understand the consequences of their actions. Teixeira dispersed the documents that he had copied in his chat group with the assumption that its members, most of whom are teenagers, were trustworthy. It was a fatal miscalculation.
But such wanton negligence is not just his personal problem; it is built into the Pentagon’s system. The responsible parties should be held accountable, and controls should be tightened, because every state — even a democracy — is dependent on ensuring that sensitive information about national security reaches only a small circle of individuals. This is especially applicable to the U.S. as a global superpower. If it does not fix its negligent handing of secrets, it will continue to stumble from one scandal to the next into the foreseeable future.