Why Give a Gaggle of Gamer Geeks Access to Top Secret Info?
Teixeira under arrest
A few years ago, I blogged about the time my then-seven-year-old son quick-wittedly did his best to keep a secret (about a surprise birthday party) from his grandpa. If you’ve been following the news this past week, you’re probably aware that the Pentagon has been learning that secrets can’t always be entrusted to a certain swath of 20-somethings either!
I’m referring, of course, to the online sharing of a trove of top-secret documents allegedly1 by 21-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guard Airman First Class Jack Teixeira. These documents are now embarrassing governments — both friendly and hostile — all around the globe and endangering the lives of thousands of brave Ukrainians.
Among much other formerly secret information (not all of which is verifiably accurate) that this young schnook2 unveiled, first to his war-game geek buddies and through them to the world, is the following:
- Maps of Ukrainian air defense systems that the Russian military will enjoy studying.
- Information on both Russian and Ukrainian war casualties.
- What The Economist calls “sensitive capabilities, including previously unknown spy satellites and electronic intelligence-gathering that locates Russian and Ukrainian formations by their radio emissions.”
- What the New York Times reports as the depth to which “American spy agencies have penetrated nearly every aspect of the Russian intelligence apparatus and military command structure.” Such information would likely reveal the capabilities of U.S. signals intelligence (SIGINT) to collect information inside Russia and, potentially, the identities of any people in the Russian military or government who might have provided information to the U.S.
- “Infighting” inside the Russian government.
- Information on China’s consideration of providing military aid to Russia.
- Information on previously unreported U.S. intelligence awareness of Chinese spy balloon activity.
- Information on the timing, quantity and mode of delivery of South Korean artillery shells to Ukraine.
- A range of other information potentially embarrassing to Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Hungary (a NATO ally) and, for all we know, others.
Although Teixeira will likely plead not guilty to federal espionage charges (or go for a plea bargain), what he should actually plead is stupidity so profound as to invite comparison to the Mariana Trench (near Guam, at about 36,000 feet/11,000 meters, the deepest place in any of the world’s oceans). In addition to his modest rank in the National Guard3 and his duties as a communications technician, in his spare time Teixeira was also the kingpin of a gaggle of mostly teenage online war gamers with whom he shared these top secret documents.
My reading of the first report about the “leaks” — more accurately a hemorrhage — that one of Teixeira’s war gaming buddies provided to a Washington Post reporter seemed to show that Teixeira’s motivation was a desire to show off to his online community and educate his war-game friends about actual international events.
The question in my mind — and the problem for the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community to solve — is how documents containing such highly sensitive information could be shared with a young schnook who totally lacked an understanding of the need for and meaning of TOP SECRECY.
Why should a low-ranked communications technician be allowed to read — let alone disseminate — sensitive information transmitted on networks he helps maintain?
And how — if it can’t be helped that he might see some of this information in the course of his work — how is it possible that it was not forcefully impressed on him that disseminating such information is a mega offense with potentially deadly consequences?
My own experience with Top Secret clearance
From 1971 to 1985, when I was a Foreign Service officer who served, among other places, in the U.S. embassy in Brasilia and our consulate-general in Leningrad, I had top secret clearance, although I hardly ever had occasion to see documents classified more sensitive than “confidential.” At these diplomatic posts — and also at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the U.S. Information Agency — great attention was paid to the security of such information.
In Brasilia and Leningrad (as in every other U.S. diplomatic mission) a handful of U.S. Marines was — and is — posted. The primary duty of this Marine detail was to safeguard “classified” documents. Every evening, one of them would check every office to make certain that no classified document had been carelessly left on a desk or inbox. They all had to be securely locked up in a safe. If anyone left such a document out at the end of the day, the document would be immediately secured and the responsible person reprimanded. Multiple infractions could result in being sent back to the U.S. and, possibly, losing one’s job.
Similar care was taken (although without the Marines’ help) in the USIA’s Washington offices. All desks were checked and classified documents locked up at the end of every day.
In Leningrad, a Marine was always stationed opposite the elevator on the third floor to ensure that no one who lacked Top Secret clearance was ever allowed onto the third or fourth floors, where the consul-general’s office, a “bug-proof” conference room, and all the highly classified encryption and communications equipment — which linked the consulate to Washington and our embassies around the world — was kept in a large room behind a heavy door like that of a bank vault.
Another recollection: As a senior consulate staff member, I would take my turn participating in the weekly trip to the Leningrad airport to meet the courier who delivered the diplomatic pouch. Two of us would go there on a chartered bus and meet the courier, who would arrive on a Finnair flight from Helsinki, on the tarmac. We would have with us that week’s carefully sealed outgoing pouch. The courier would meet us at the bottom of the stairs where, together, we’d watch the opening of the cargo hatch. He’d grab the incoming pouch and exchange it with us out there on the tarmac, often in freezing temperatures, and then stow the outgoing pouch in the cargo compartment. Together, we’d then wait in the warm bus, right next to the plane, keeping our eyes on the hatch, till it was again tightly secured. While the courier would then reboard the plane, we would wait in the bus with the incoming pouch till the plane not only rolled away from the gate, but till we could see that it had taken off — “Wheels up!” we’d yell — before we left the tarmac and drove back to the consulate with the pouch.
Such were — and are — some of the lengths to which the government goes to safeguard the security of classified information.
If only it would apply a similar level of attention to all the people who have access to information on which lives and America’s national security depend.
1. Journalistic conventions on reporting about perpetrators dictate that, thanks to the presumption of innocence until a perp is found guilty, we write “allegedly” even when the evidence of responsibility is clear and damning.
2. Reporting I’ve seen about Teixeira’s arrogance and bigotry makes me think of him as Jerk, not Jack.
3. Airman First Class is equivalent to what the Army calls Private First Class, i.e., just a tiny step above buck private.
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