The Narcissists Who Endanger America

Leaked classified documents, a 21-year-old airman, and the weakness that is hardest for the U.S. national-security community to spot

An illustration of a paper airplane flying through a padlock's shackle
Matt Chase / The Atlantic

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The FBI yesterday arrested Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guard employee, for posting highly sensitive Pentagon documents online. Teixeira, at this point, seems to have had no reason for spilling national secrets to a chat group other than that he wanted to show off, impress his friends, and establish himself as an important person in a small community of digital gamers. This, from the available reporting, seems different from the cases of other young people who compromised national security, including Reality Winner, Chelsea Manning, and, of course, Edward Snowden.

But all of these cases—as well as the notorious cases of much older people who betrayed their country, such as Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen—are bound by the common thread of narcissism. Teixeira, if early reports prove accurate, might be the dorkiest of these cases, but make no mistake: The damage he is alleged to have caused looks to be immense, all because he reportedly wanted to be the boss among a clique of online pals.

Brainless bragging so far seems to apply in Teixeira’s case. But my assertion about betrayal and narcissism will infuriate those who see Winner and Snowden as noble whistleblowers who should have been honored rather than persecuted. Winner, they might note, suffered for her choices (and got a far stiffer sentence than most of the January 6 insurrectionists). Snowden fled—or, as his apologists would argue, had to flee—to Russia to remain beyond the reach of an American state determined to punish him for revealing government misconduct.

The romanticized versions of these stories fail to account for the various shades of narcissistic behavior on display in all of these cases, and especially in the most recent breaches. I am not here to argue the case for or against any of these people, but for the record, I think Snowden was (and is) a traitor, Winner was naive and foolish, and Manning was, mostly, a victim. All did serious damage to this nation. For most of my adult life, in positions in the U.S. Senate and the Defense Department, I held a security clearance; I would not have made the same choices, and I deplore theirs.

Despite their various justifications, however, the crimes both of self-proclaimed do-gooders and avowed traitors are not that different from those Teixeira is alleged to have committed. They are the product of a protracted epidemic of narcissism, and if the U.S. national-security community does not find a way to protect classified information from this malady, it’s going to happen again.

To be fair, intelligence organizations are not exactly blind to the problem. Intelligence professionals use the acronym MICE to explain the four main reasons people betray their country: money, ideology, compromise, and ego. Money is always an issue, which is why people in deep financial difficulty will often be flagged as a risk and even have their clearances suspended. Some ideologies, especially those centered on anti-government grievances, can be dangerous. Compromising information can lead people to hide their own secrets by betraying their nation’s secrets instead.

But that last category, ego, can be the weakness that is hardest to spot. No urine test flips positive for a dangerous narcissist. No bank statement reveals a deficit of principle or a surplus of self-regard. Polygraphs are of arguable reliability, and clearly neither deter nor even discover some people willing to take risks. At higher levels, clearance holders have to pass psychological examinations, but narcissism can look a lot like ambition and self-confidence, just as expressions of high principle and rectitude can mask self-serving rationalizations.

Of course, betrayal sometimes has all of these issues at work. The CIA turncoat Ames, for example, was finally caught in the 1990s partly because of investigations into his finances, but for years, he was also a disgruntled and passed-over operative with a drinking problem who used to zip around in a Jaguar. (It’s never the ones you suspect.) Hanssen, the FBI traitor who gave up so much dangerous material that he could have faced the death penalty, was something of a weirdo: a devout Catholic who secretly taped sex with his wife, went to men’s clubs to convert strippers, and was such a dark and strange presence that his co-workers dubbed him “The Mortician” and “Dr. Death.” But with his Russian handlers, he was “Ramon,” a hero and a swashbuckler.

Even Kim Philby, the legendary British mole, was an upper-class rake, an elite dandy who nonetheless professed to the end of his life—perhaps sincerely—that he was a loyal Soviet Marxist. But he was also an egotistical charmer, a user, and a liar, as those who knew him later came to understand with painful clarity.

Snowden, for his part, vacillated between hard-right views and anti-government gripes, but underneath it all was a young man who, for most of his life, had been invisible and who yearned for recognition. Online, he called himself “The True HOOHAH,” a military-style moniker. (He tried to join the Army Special Forces, but washed out.) He apparently considered male modeling. At one point, he chose a new digital avatar: “Wolfking Awesomefox.” He finally found the importance he craved by stealing hundreds of thousands of documents (materials he later admitted he had not read or vetted) and instantly became an international celebrity.

The Winner and Manning cases are sadder stories, songs with different lyrics but the same music. Winner was convinced that she had the responsibility to tell the world about Russian attempts to interfere in American politics. (She had no background in such matters; a National Security Agency contractor hired her as a linguist.) Manning, a lonely misfit in the Army, found an online friendship with the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and handed over thousands of documents that she herself had no hope of understanding.

Narcissism, as I’ve written elsewhere, is on the rise, in the United States and around the world. It is destroying many of the social and political norms that sustain a democratic nation, and especially those that guide public service. People consumed by concerns over their social status, as Teixeira seemed to be; or who will mortgage national security for companionship and approval, as Manning did; or who—as in the cases of Snowden and Winner—think of themselves as the ultimate arbiters of the social good are all menaces to national security, no matter what their reasons.

What can be done to mitigate these risks? First, implement the easiest and most obvious fix: Slash the number of security clearances. Far too many people who don’t need them are carrying risky clearances, mostly because of outdated Cold War rules. I was one: When I was a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, I had to hold a secret-level security clearance because of a Defense Department rule that people who train or educate American military officers need a clearance, even if they’re not working with restricted documents. My clearance gave me access to classified materials if I wanted to read them, and classified events if I wanted to attend them, but I didn’t need it to do my job and neither do a lot of other people who can access classified material for no useful purpose.

Next, change the hidebound and tangled clearance process that looks for easily identifiable human frailties such as adultery and substance abuse, but somehow overlooks the dangers of narcissism. I do not have a precise set of prescriptions for how to go about this—but I hope that more attention to social-media postings and online chat-room activity becomes a standard part of a background check. The process sometimes seems to zero in on measurable problems rather than less tangible personality flaws. When I was asked, for example, about colleagues by investigators—a common part of the clearance and re-clearance process—I was always struck by how much they centered on such concrete things as money and infidelity.

Meanwhile, each year as a federal employee, I had to sit through hours of training about protecting information, which included how to spot more nebulous “insider threats.” We were told to be watchful for anger, behavioral changes, foreign contacts, financial irregularities, and outbursts about American policies. And each year, I would ruefully tote up all the senior government officials I would have gladly reported, including former President Donald Trump and retired General Michael Flynn, men who checked nearly every “insider threat” box on the list. Nonetheless, it was a reminder of the importance of supporting and protecting patriotic whistleblowers—especially the ones who might face the wrath of vengeful bureaucrats and politicians.

But although all of these risk factors are important, most people, even burdened with their human failings, are not going to reveal America’s secrets. If we’re going to stop the next reckless narcissist—whether it’s a swaggering adolescent jerk or a self-styled crusader—the U.S. national-security establishment is going to need sharper instincts, and must start confronting the one vice that unites them all.

Yes, we need to know who is in deep financial straits, and who harbors a secret grudge against America. But mostly, we need to inquire more closely into who among us will betray our country for fame, for approval, or because they somehow think that our laws and classifications are for less enlightened citizens than themselves. Unlocking that one secret is crucial to protecting our national security in a new age of narcissism.