Stopping another leak of classified data will be tough say military experts
After a National Guard airman was arrested on charges of leaking classified documents to an online chatroom, commanders were left to wonder how to stop the next leak.
Airman 1st Class Jack Teixeira is due back in court Thursday. Even before the case works its way through the courts, the Air Force and Space Force have ordered a service-wide stand downs to review security procedures.
“It's not sexy. Whatever is going to come out of this that's going to be effective, there won't be one single thing that is going to keep this from ever happening again. That never happens that way,” said Mark Cooter, a retired Air Force Intelligence Officer.
Commanders have 30 days to brief the men and women under them on how to guard against future leaks, including the host wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, where they are still designing their response.
“The 633d Air Base Wing will take time over the next 30 days to reassess our security posture and procedures. The security of classified information is crucial to the safety of our servicemembers. Our organization will use this opportunity to emphasize to all Airmen the importance of safeguarding information and improving security across the Air Force,” said Col. Gregory Beaulieu, 633d Air Base Wing, in an emailed statement.
The stand downs will be conducted at air bases throughout the world, over the next month.
Meanwhile, the commander of the Massachusetts Air National Guard where Jack Teixeira worked, has been temporarily suspended. Col. Sean Riley, commander of the 102nd Intelligence Wing, Massachusetts Air National Guard, has been reassigned to administrative duties pending an investigation.
Pinning down the leaks
Before he retired in 2013, Cooter commanded an intelligence unit at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia. That unit coordinated with the Massachusetts National Guard unit where Teixeira was stationed.
“They were kind of hooked to us to provide additional capacity,” he said. “And they were good at it.”
This kind of data-driven intelligence continues to expand rapidly. Until Teixeira’s guard unit was suspended from its intelligence mission after the leak was uncovered, it was one of 27 installations worldwide to handle one type of data, part of the United States Air Force Distributed Common Ground System. The unit was processing information from drones around the world.
“Not just drones, but manned aircraft as well,” Cooter said. “Processing images or video off of there. Making products for the commanders or the warfighters.”
One of the many things commanders will have to consider is whether too much classified information ends up on paper, because some people don’t want to read it off of a computer screen, Cooter said.
But each leak is different, says Crowdstrike co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch. He points to the fact that Teixeira was found to have circulated racist memes along with the classified material.
“I would argue that any time you have a racist person inside your organization, whether it's the military intelligence community or even a company out there, that's going to be, at a minimum, highly disruptive to say the least,” Alperovitch said.
Teixeira released reams of documents onto a private Discord chatroom to a group of mainly young gamers. He hasn’t spoken publicly since his arrest. So far he hasn’t relayed signs that he was trying to impact U.S policy.
“Well, it's clear here that he wanted to look cool hanging out on this chat room,” Alperovitch said. “And that's something that you can look for. I think we need to do a much better job identifying those types of people who may be trying to get information out there to beef up their own reputations.”
He thinks commanders need to look at whether they are relying too heavily on younger airmen. The New York Times reports Teixeira may have begun sharing classified material on Discord as far back as the start of the war in Ukraine in February 2022. That’s only four months after the 21-year-old began working full-time for the guard unit.
“That’s a real hard one for me,” said Sina Beaghley with the Rand Corporation. “Because there are substantial numbers of individuals in their late teens and early twenties performing exceptionally in national security missions. And we need those individuals”
Beaghley coordinated the National Security Council review after Edward Snowden, who was a low level IT contractor, was caught leaking thousands of classified documents in 2013. She says the vetting process for security clearances does monitor social media - a daunting task when an estimated 4 million people have some type of security clearance.
“They can see what an individual posts publicly, if they can attribute the social media presence to the individual,” she said. “If someone is posting in an anonymous way. There are a lot of gaps. But how do you get some kind of social media monitoring on 4 million cleared individuals and resolve that to those individuals? So these are big challenges.”