With the recent arrest of Airman First Class Jack Douglas Teixeira for mishandling classified material, we are all left wondering how such a thing could happen. A thorough investigation will follow, but we have too many people with clearances who do not need them. We also have too many programs and operations that are unnecessarily classified, and far too many people with clearances have unnecessary access. I’ve listened to the pundits cry out with incredulity at how a 21-year-old could access classified materials. The truth is that it is more common than rare for a 21-year-old to have such access.
Most recruits for military service are between the ages of 18–22, and many are assigned to positions that require clearances. There are not many 30-year-old recruits signing up for military service.
I was granted a top-secret clearance at age 18 in the U.S. Navy because my position as a cryptographic technician required it. The young age of recruits, however, creates a dilemma because there is not much background to check on an 18-year-old. I was just out of high school and was living at home. I was not old enough to drink, had no credit history, and lived with my parents. I had a limited part-time job history with no real responsibility. My investigation came back with no negatives, and I was given access to the highest levels of our nation’s secrets.
The system is designed to look for things that would prohibit a person from getting a clearance, and, barring any negative information, clearance is usually authorized. The system is not designed to determine whether the individual is responsible, mature, and intellectually astute enough to handle such a responsibility. This may be the case with Airman First Class Texeira. (RELATED: Jack Teixeira: Kid Leaker?)
Several issues need to be addressed.
First, too many clearances are issued without a real need. According to CNN, as of 2017, more than 2.8 million people were described as having a security clearance. More than 1.6 million people have access to either confidential or secret information, and nearly 1.2 million people have access to top-secret material.
During my time as a federal employee, I learned that accommodating supervisors would request clearances for their high performers when it wasn’t required because clearances are valuable to one’s career. This adds to the backlog, creating pressure to get people through the process.
In addition, it is not uncommon to ask for a periodic review or clearance update just before retirement so that it can remain active, which is extremely valuable in the contracting world. This favor to retirees also puts a burden on the system. These burdens have led to scandals where private firms hired by the government to conduct background investigations have pushed people through without a thorough investigation to keep up with the contract requisites, eliminate the backlog, and meet bonus requirements.
Unnecessary clearances slow the process for those who need them and result in jobs going unfilled. And because too many are issued, the periodic rechecks that should happen every five years often go way beyond that because they are so far behind.
Secondly, too much material is being classified and overclassified. A higher classification means that more resources are needed to protect it, and more material to protect increases the odds of an unauthorized release. One way to limit the classification and overclassification of material is to severely limit those who have classification authority.
More frequent training in safeguarding classified material is needed. The government needs to limit broad access and go back to a need-to-know approach through the compartmentalization of material. They also need to increase oversight of those persons with the highest access. This should include monitoring social media and using polygraphs more broadly across the government — not just in certain agencies. The government should also revisit the criminal penalties to ensure they are appropriate and send a strong message. And the government should revisit the whistleblower statutes.
While whistleblower protections are necessary and important to prevent internal malfeasance, they cannot be used as a defense to release classified material because ideologues are displeased with the policies of the country. The entire process needs to be reexamined from top to bottom. Recently, President Joe Biden claimed that he was not concerned about the leak. This is part of the problem. Top-down messages are important, and the president’s lack of concern sends the wrong message to the rank and file.
We need to protect our country’s secrets, methods, and sources — lives depend on it. Our inability to protect secrets will affect our absolute need to obtain vital information from our allies and partners. Our allies will refuse to share this vital information if they believe it can’t be protected. It starts from the top down, and the recent mishandling of classified material by our nation’s leaders doesn’t help the cause. Protecting classified material is serious business and needs the full attention of the military and the administration.
Stephen Phillip Monteiro spent over 20 years as a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service. He is an expert in security, forensics, intelligence, and bioterrorism and was a member of the elite Presidential Protective Division at the White House. He has held senior leadership positions with consulting firms in Washington, D.C., and is a former police officer and veteran of the U.S. Navy.
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