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Not for Self, But for Country? A Crisis for U.S. Counterintelligence

The U.S. government is once again scrambling to contain the damage from yet another disastrous leak of classified information. The leak will undoubtedly lead to a counterintelligence crackdown, including extra security measures for classified documents and closer scrutiny of those holding security clearances. Experts have called for reforming the bloated classification system or reducing the number of security clearances granted by the government. But these and other proposed measures will not address the root cause of systemic problems facing the U.S. Intelligence Community.

A profile of the alleged leaker, Jack Teixeira, in The New York Times paints a picture of a young man who dreamed of joining the military yet “caused harm to the country he had devoted himself to serving.” One of Teixeira’s former high school classmates expressed shock, stating that he “could never have foreseen him doing that.” However, a member of the online chatroom where Teixeira posted the classified information explained that Teixeira “had become disillusioned about the U.S. military” and thought that the U.S. government was too powerful.

Teixeira joins the ranks of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Reality Winner as young Americans who leaked classified information after they lost faith in their own government. Unless the government takes urgent steps to understand and address this growing problem, the crisis in U.S. counterintelligence is only going to get worse.

Losing Faith in the System

Teixeira evidently wanted to correct the government’s narrative regarding the war in Ukraine. Opposition to U.S. foreign policy has always been a reason for leaks. The rapid U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan left many in public service demoralized. The equally rapid transition to the war in Ukraine, including the government’s insistence that the American people must be willing to pay the price for “as long as it takes” will tax the public’s patience as more Americans lean towards isolationism.

Even if people love their country, they may hate their government, particularly when politics gets involved. Politicizing national security can lead public servants to think that their own government is the enemy. Moreover, Teixeira quickly became a political football. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed Teixeira was targeted by the Biden administration based on his identity and beliefs. A polarized political environment means there will always be members of at least one political party who will exploit leakers for political gain, thereby emboldening others.

The problem of leaks will continue to grow if those in public service feel like the government serves its own interests rather than those of the people. In this case, Teixeira believed that the military “was run by the elite politicians.” Teixeira is among the majority of Americans exhibiting disillusionment with the U.S. government. Most Americans increasingly distrust their own government and think that it is not transparent with the public. Following in the same vein as Manning, Snowden, and Winner, Teixeira leaked classified information “to educate people,” although it is important to note that in Teixeira’s case, he shared the documents in a private chatroom. Other members in the chatroom publicly exposed the secrets Teixeira leaked, which were then spread further online—including by disgruntled former U.S. Navy veteran, Sarah Bils.

Leaking classified information is now a broadly accepted response to disagreements with and distrust in the U.S. government. Potential leakers can therefore count on widespread public support from people who consider them whistleblowers rather than traitors. In short, the political, social, and cultural context of the United States today makes leaks from individuals like Manning, Snowden, Winner, and now Teixeira more likely.

Looking for Leakers in All the Wrong Places

The current U.S. counterintelligence system has few answers for leakers like Teixeira. Background investigations for security clearances focus on key characteristics, for example, financial difficulties or foreign contacts. They only make a tepid effort to determine the applicant’s loyalty to the United States. Even polygraph tests are no fail-safe: the notorious CIA traitor Aldrich Ames passed two.

The motivation behind the current background investigation system is to recognize and weed out individuals who might be vulnerable to recruitment by foreign intelligence services, which has historically been the source of major counterintelligence failures. But Teixeira, Manning, Snowden, and Winner were not working for anyone else. Instead, they individually and willfully decided to release classified information.

The system also falls short with younger applicants like Teixeira because there is less material on which to evaluate their fitness to hold a clearance. Periodic reinvestigation or continuous vetting tracks overt transgressions. How do you identify and, more importantly, rehabilitate individuals who become jaded over time? This is the key question and challenge now facing the U.S. government’s efforts to protect classified information from leaks.

Shoring up Security by Restoring Faith in Public Service

Leaks produce paranoia and suspicion. In response, the government may encourage its employees to surveil each other for an insider threat, creating a toxic work environment. Indeed, the U.S. government should reconsider how it conceives of and applies the term “insider threat” to characterize those who might leak classified information.

First, the term is speculative. The government should avoid signaling that its own people are potential threats, especially before they have done anything wrong, because it undermines both their morale and public trust.

Second, the term is overly broad, suggesting that anyone working in the government with a grievance may pose a threat. But many grievances are routine and widespread – concerning working conditions, disagreements with policies or politics, or a lack of recognition and feeling of purposelessness. If everyone who harbored frustrations with the government was a leaker, there would be no classified information left to protect.

Third, reporting requirements for insider threats can make people feel like they cannot voice well-grounded, well-intentioned, or principled frustrations with their government or job, which could drive them to hide their dissatisfaction, engage in more secretive behaviors, and ultimately conclude that the only path for addressing grievances is through leaking.

Government bureaucracy can grind down those who, perhaps overly optimistically, thought they would generate positive change only to feel stymied by the system. Sensing that one’s efforts are unappreciated or in vain can lead an individual to seek recognition elsewhere. This appears to have been the case in the most recent leaks – according to some members of the chatroom, Teixeira shared the secret documents in an effort to impress the group.

Bureaucracy does not have to be static; it merely reflects the sum of the choices of individuals, organizations, and leaders. Bureaucracy can and must change to meet the current moment.

Young people may be particularly at risk of leaking because they tend to be idealistic and may feel powerless to address grievances through formal channels. As the demographics of civil servants changes, especially in terms of age, the U.S. government will have to reconsider its approach to its bureaucratic system and standard operating procedures to accommodate generational shifts.

The government’s current insider threat training exacerbates the problem. Rote, mandatory, online training or in-person briefings are a source of frustration rather than motivation. Generic scenarios and warnings will not prepare people for the undoubtedly complex questions and thoughts they wrestle with before deciding to leak classified information. The government should devote more resources to offering a foundational education in areas like civics, ethics, and U.S. national security policy to those who hold security clearances.

By way of a personal example, I was talking to a friend who is a senior non-commissioned officer in a military special operations component about the U.S. government’s consistent failure to truly convey to service members how their actions—and sacrifices—have a straightforward and meaningful impact on high-level national security policy and strategy. He responded that until he reached a senior position that required him to attend a professional military education institution, no one had made that connection for him despite years of service and multiple deployments. The government must ensure that individuals in positions of public trust, especially those with security clearances, understand both the relevancy of their work and the magnitude of the stakes involved in order to give them a sense of purpose and import a feeling of personal responsibility for the common defense.

It is worth emphasizing that leakers like Teixeira are outliers. The overwhelming majority of public servants with security clearances are faithful stewards of the information they are charged with protecting. However, as the latest leaks reveal, even one leaker can have catastrophic consequences. But perhaps the real catastrophe is that the U.S. government has let individuals like Teixeira lose faith in the system they sought to serve in the first place.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the U.S. government, Department of Defense, or Joint Special Operations University.

IMAGE: This photo illustration created on April 13, 2023, shows the Discord logo and the suspect, national guardsman Jack Teixeira, reflected in an image of the Pentagon in Washington, DC.(Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

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