Here’s why the US can’t stop military and intel members from leaking top-secret documents

First there was Army soldier Chelsea Manning, and after that intelligence contractors Edward Snowden and Reality Winner. All of them were 20-somethings charged with leaking highly classified documents they had access to as part of their government work and disclosing some of America’s most closely guarded secrets.

On Thursday, federal authorities arrested yet another suspected young leaker of top-secret U.S. Intelligence: Jack Teixeira, a low-ranking member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard.

Teixeira, 21, is charged with the unauthorized removal, retention and transmission of classified national defense information about the war in Ukraine and U.S. Efforts to spy on its enemies and allies. The disclosures over the past week have exposed sensitive information about the U.S.-Assisted war effort in Ukraine and the fragile wartime relationship between Washington and its allies.

More:Pentagon document leak: Here are the biggest takeaways after U.S. Military secrets leaked.

Teixeira, an enlisted airman first class, is a member of the 102nd Intelligence Wing based in Cape Cod. Media reports say he posted the documents to an online group of young men and teenagers who came together over their shared love of weaponry, video games and racist online memes.

Why do these kinds of damaging intelligence leaks keep happening? And perhaps more important, what can the U.S. Military and intelligence establishment do to prevent it from happening again?

Experts, including former U.S. Intelligence officials, told USA TODAY that there are no easy fixes to the problem. That’s especially the case because of the vastness of the military and intelligence bureaucracy, which has millions of people – many of them independent contractors – with top-secret security clearances.

And in a post-9/11 world where government agencies are required to share whatever they can with whomever they can, no amount of “Insider Threat” monitoring is bound to catch all wrongdoers, they said in interviews.

“It’s a very complex system, so there are no simple solutions,” said Glenn Gerstell, the National Security Agency’s general counsel from 2015 to 2020. “But maybe all those millions of people don’t need access to everything the way we’ve got things going now.”.

Similarities between leakers

According to military records, Teixeira joined the National Guard in 2019 and worked at Otis Air National Guard Base. His job title: cyber transport systems journeyman.

Teixeira is awaiting a court appearance Friday in the case and has not entered a plea. But military security experts and former U.S. Intelligence officials told USA TODAY there are many similarities between Teixeira and the other young “grunts,” or low-level operators and analysts who have been charged with stealing and leaking similarly classified documents.

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Chelsea Manning was a 23-year-old Army intelligence analyst in 2010 when she stole and leaked more than 700,000 classified documents, including battlefield reports on Iraq and Afghanistan and State Department cables. Manning, who said she provided the documents to Wikileaks as a form of protest, was convicted and spent four years in prison before being pardoned by President Barack Obama.

More:Who leaked the Pentagon documents? What we know about Jack Teixeira, the suspected DOD leaker.

In 2013, there was the case of 29-year-old Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency intelligence contractor in Hawaii who leaked a massive trove of classified documents that disclosed details about top-secret U.S. Intelligence-gathering and surveillance programs. Snowden, who was charged under the Espionage Act, fled to Russia, where he lives today as a fugitive from U.S. Justice. He has said he leaked the documents to protest U.S. Domestic and foreign policy.

In 2017, 25-year-old Reality Leigh Winner, a linguist for an NSA intelligence contractor in Georgia, was arrested and charged with giving a media organization a classified U.S. Government report about Russian hacking attempts that targeted U.S. Voter registration information. She served about three years of her five-year prison sentence and was released in June 2021.

In the latest case, authorities have not said whether Teixeira is accused of leaking documents to make a political statement. A Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, declined to comment on case details at a press briefing, citing an ongoing Justice Department investigation.

But, Ryder, said, “this was a deliberate criminal act.”.

Teixeira posted the documents to Discord, a social media and messaging platform popular among gamers, in an online group called Thug Shaker Central, according to The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Members of the group did not identify Teixeira by name but referred to the person posting dozens of top-secret documents in recent months as OG, their de facto leader, the reports said. Some said he might have been doing it simply to share – and show off – the secrets he knew to a small circle of online friends who bonded over video games.

According to The Times, “One of the friends said the O.G. Had access to intelligence documents through his job.”.

What has been done to catch leakers?

After each of the cases, authorities have promised to crack down on leaks. That has included stricter controls over who has access to intelligence, and what some people can download or print from certain government computers, according to Gerstell and Gavin Wilde, a former senior information security official at the NSA and the National Security Council in the White House.

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In the current case, the documents in question – some of them posted on Twitter – appear to be photocopies of printed documents, according to a USA TODAY review of some of them.

Periodically, authorities also have beefed up “Insider Threat” programs at their respective agencies that are designed to catch disgruntled employees who might want to steal information and weaponize it for financial or political gain.

One problem is that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which has oversight of all 18 U.S. Intelligence agencies, has little ability to curtail information-sharing between or within agencies. In fact, its job is to promote such liaisons.

Given the patchwork of big and small military and intelligence units, it’s impossible to take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the problem, Wilde told USA TODAY.

As a result, efforts to actually stop classified information theft at the source, including scrutinizing who is actually downloading electronic documents or printing them out, have been done only in fits and starts and not on a mass scale, said Wilde, a senior fellow in the Technology and International Affairs Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“We can track a terrorist across the globe pretty seamlessly by now, but we don’t have a very good way of saying, ‘Hey, why are you printing out so much stuff when your title doesn’t seem to denote that you need to be doing that?’ ” Wilde said. “There’s probably major investments that should have gone into being able to track and adjudicate print privileges and to throw up other red flags.”.

Well-meaning changes with dangerous consequences

Gerstell said two of the main reasons there are gaping holes in the information security apparatus began with intelligence-sharing reforms that were instituted years ago and with the best of intentions.

One came in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and the failure of U.S. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies to “connect the dots” and uncover the plot beforehand.

“We never wanted to be in a position again where we looked back and said, ‘Oh, we knew this information but we couldn’t access it and therefore, some terrible accident or disaster has occurred,’ ” Gerstell said.

That fear infused the government at all levels with the mandate to share intelligence wherever possible, including widely disseminating the kind of top-secret warfighter intelligence that was posted online in recent months.

The second change, Gerstell said, came after the Iraq War underscored problems with faulty intelligence analysis. The Pentagon, CIA and other agencies sought to bend over backward to share not only the information they were getting, he said, but also how they were getting it and what it meant.

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“But you put these two things together and you wind up in a situation where we’ve enabled seemingly lower-level people to have access to a great amount of information while giving lip service to the need-to-know principle” necessary for protecting classified information, he said.

Using intel to gain online respect

The documents posted to the private online Discord community were discussed online but were meant to be purely informative, members of Thug Shaker Central told The New York Times. It reported that while many of the documents were related to the war in Ukraine, the group’s members said they took no side in the conflict.

The documents began to get wider attention only when one of the teenage members posted some to a public online forum. From there they were picked up by Russian-language Telegram channels, The Times reported.

James Ivory, a Virginia Tech professor who monitors the intersection of social media, video gaming and international intelligence, said the news reports – if true – underscore the virtually impossible task of monitoring the online activities of young military service members.

“The defense community has no small number of people working in roles where they are far removed from the battlefield but have access to classified information that will gain them authority and credibility among others fascinated with the military, including gamers” like those on Discord, Ivory told USA TODAY.

“The temptation for young people with security access to leverage their knowledge as a way to gain cachet among military-interested communities will continue to be a common risk in online communities,” Ivory said.

After latest leak, are there more to come?

With Teixeira in custody and awaiting a court appearance, experts said it’s unlikely that more of them will be posted given his arrest Thursday afternoon. But many of them could have been shared beforehand.

Garland said little beyond the immediate charges facing Teixeira at a brief news conference Thursday at Justice Department headquarters.

Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, also did not discuss details of the case but said that stringent guidelines are in place to protect classified information and that the whole system is under review.

Asked why such a junior member of a National Guard unit might have access to such top-secret material, Ryder would not comment on Teixeira.

But, he said, “we entrust our members with a lot of responsibility at a very early age. Think about a young combat platoon sergeant and the responsibility and trust that we put into those individuals to lead troops into combat.”.

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