An Utterly Trivial Reason to Give Away National Secrets

The intelligence-leak suspect allegedly wanted to show off online.

Illustration showing picture of hacker wearing hoodie, but his face is a tears-of-joy emoji
Illustration by Matt Chase / The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

The biggest surprise in the latest major intelligence-leak case is the purported motive: The suspected leaker provided highly sensitive U.S. intelligence assessments, mostly about the war in Ukraine, to an online chat group in order to show off.

That would be funny if the consequences weren’t so serious. The information revealed could compromise the crucial flow of information about Russian decision making and has certainly harmed the prospects for Ukraine’s anticipated spring military offensive. Repairing the damage will require costly and time-consuming efforts to acquire information in new ways, as previous targets—having now been given clues about how the U.S. was collecting intelligence—change their communications and patterns to shield themselves from scrutiny. The leak has surely constricted information sharing, at least within the U.S. government, and perhaps also among allies. All of that harm occurred, news reports suggest, so someone could feel important in front of 20 to 30 people on the internet.

Unfortunately, preventing future leaks of a similar nature will be a challenge because the alleged motive is difficult for investigators to deal with. Stealing secrets for money creates lifestyle changes that become evident, which is how the CIA’s Aldrich Ames was found out. Identifying people whose ideology drives them to spread classified information is harder, but their attitudes tend to manifest in social and professional circumstances. But how can intelligence agencies sniff out the kind of emotional insecurity that friends of the suspect, Jack Teixeira, are attributing to him? How can experts determine which of the people with access to high-level intelligence also crave the affirmation that recklessly damaging the nation’s security may provide?

Past leaks of U.S. intelligence have pointed out a variety of problems with the way American military and intelligence agencies handle information. For example, the widespread practice of overclassifying information desensitizes people to the need to keep certain things secret. For the sake of ease, speed, or privacy, people with security clearances use classified email systems to communicate even when the text they’re sharing contains no real secrets. People classify documents in draft form to prevent disclosure of policy information, even if the ultimate policy will be a matter of public knowledge. And staff at government agencies often bump up the classification level of information because they fear the penalties of wrongly under-classifying it. When everything is classified, some people might have trouble identifying information that is genuinely sensitive.

But that dynamic does not apply to what’s in the recently discovered leak. It contained a lot of signals intelligence, which is generally among the U.S. government’s most highly classified information because the means by which it is collected and the identities of the people being eavesdropped upon are evident in many cases. Assessments of the war in Ukraine are incredibly sensitive and clearly marked. Anything originating in the CIA Operations Center or prepared for the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is by definition noteworthy, even among classified documents.

The leaker surely knew that making the documents in question public was a massive breach of duty. As the Pentagon’s spokesperson, Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, said yesterday, “It’s important to understand that we do have stringent guidelines in place. This was a deliberate criminal act.”

Although many observers have noted the suspect’s young age and junior position in the military, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The American military, generally to its credit, gives enormous responsibility to young men and women; the average age on the flight deck of some aircraft carriers is 19. And the sources of all three of the major intelligence breaches in the past 15 years have been junior staffers: the Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010, the defense contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, and the Air Force veteran and defense contractor Reality Winner in 2017. The intelligence profession is most vulnerable at its base, not its apex.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced in a statement that the Pentagon is reviewing “intelligence access, accountability and control procedures within the Department to inform our efforts to prevent this kind of incident from happening again.” My guess is that this will do little to reduce the risk. The alleged leaker probably had justifiable access to the information, and supervision is difficult online, as every parent knows. Supervision is especially tough in an operational military unit, where both the level of trust and the tempo of work tend to be high.

In the book Divided Armies, the political scientist Jason Lyall demonstrates that inclusivity—fostering a sense of respect and belonging—is a crucial determinant of war-winning armies. That feeling is harder to create and sustain in Guard and Reserve units, which are together only intermittently. It’s also harder to create and sustain when a former president and members of Congress are castigating the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a traitor and baiting officers with charges that “wokeness” is destroying the fighting power of our military.

When cynicism reigns, motives as seemingly empty as the thirst for online credibility might seem like sufficient reasons to give away national secrets. Simply tightening access to intelligence—or putting everyone with access under closer surveillance—could backfire. What would be the damage to fundamental political rights of policing the social lives and social media of everyone in military service? And what would be the effects on recruiting and retention if that intrusiveness were required? The best protection against destructive intelligence leaks is a spirit of shared purpose and a common recognition that, when lives are at stake, secrets should be kept.

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