Security Clearances Getting Congressional Scrutiny After Leak Arrest

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Jack Reed.
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Jack Reed, delivers remarks at a hearing on the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2023 budget in Washington, D.C., April 7, 2022. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Congress is gearing up to probe how agencies handle and distribute classified information following the arrest of a 21-year-old National Guardsman on allegations that he carried out one of the biggest leaks of top secret Pentagon documents in decades.

The Pentagon had already launched its own review of access to intelligence products in the wake of the arrest of Jack Teixeira, who worked in an IT job for an intelligence unit in the Massachusetts National Guard and is accused of posting photographs of hundreds of pages of documents to a social media platform popular with gamers, while going undetected by authorities for months.

But Congress too is vowing to take a hard look at how the leak happened and how to prevent future ones, including examining the security clearance process.

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"There are systemic issues that need to be addressed, including protocols for how intelligence is handled, the security clearance process, and how officials can prevent intelligence leaks like this from ever happening again," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said in a statement Thursday. "Congress will be briefed further, and corrective steps will be taken."

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, similarly promised in his own statement that his panel will "examine why this happened, why it went unnoticed for weeks and how to prevent future leaks."

    "How did this individual get access to these documents, and what policies and procedures need to be changed?" Turner added in an appearance on CNN. "We need to have hearings as to what is the scope of documents -- especially when you have something as volatile as a battlefield of Ukraine -- where these documents could be accessed by someone who appears to not be in any chain of needing this information."

    Teixeira was arrested by federal agents Thursday and charged Friday with violations of the Espionage Act. As early as December, Teixeira began posting what appeared to be classified information to a chat group on the social media platform Discord, according to charging documents. Much of the leaked information reportedly centered on the war in Ukraine, as well as on U.S. intelligence assessments of allies and adversaries alike.

    Teixeira held a top secret security clearance, with the additional designation of being able to access "sensitive compartmented information," according to the charging documents. Sensitive compartmented information is considered to be among the most sensitive of U.S. secrets because it relates to sources and methods of intelligence gathering.

    More than 1.3 million government employees and contractors have top secret security clearances, according to an April 2020 report.

    The Government Accountability Office has warned for years about vulnerabilities in the security clearance process, labeling the process as "high risk" in 2018 over concerns about the timeliness and quality of background investigations and weaknesses in IT systems.

    Efforts were made to reform security clearances and handling of classified information in the wake of Edward Snowden's massive 2013 leak of documents detailing National Security Agency surveillance programs, including limiting the ability to electronically access materials in secure rooms.

    President Joe Biden said in a statement Friday that he has "directed our military and intelligence community to take steps to further secure and limit distribution of sensitive information."

    But the Discord leaks are sure to prompt efforts in Congress for more reform.

    "This is not exactly Beijing and Russia's best cyber operators doing here," Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview on CNN. "And so, clearly there's an awful lot of work, a lot of congressional oversight work we need to do to fix these systems that are constantly allowing or at least regularly allowing our secrets to get out into the wild."

    Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., a former CIA officer who sits on the Intelligence Committee, tweeted Friday that "everyone across our federal government must do more to protect classified information."

    While no specific reforms have been proposed by lawmakers yet, Congress is expected to get its first major chance at oversight next week when lawmakers return to Washington, D.C., from their spring recess. A classified briefing about the leak for all senators has been scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, and the House has requested a similar all-members briefing.

    Meanwhile, some on the far right have begun to cast Teixeira as a hero whistleblower, despite the fact that there is no evidence he intended for the materials to make their way into wider public view or had principled motivations for leaking the information. For example, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who has repeatedly incorrectly called him "Jake," suggested in tweets that he was arrested for "exposing the truth about Ukraine" and that being "white, male, christian and antiwar ... makes him an enemy to the Biden regime."

    Members of the Discord group that Teixeira allegedly leaked to told The New York Times and Washington Post that he "just wanted to inform some of his friends about what's going on" and did not see himself as a whistleblower.

    While Republican congressional leadership has not echoed Greene's praise of Teixeira, some have pinned part of the blame for the episode on the Biden administration.

    "The Biden administration has failed to secure classified information," House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., tweeted Friday. "Through our committees, Congress will get answers as to why they were asleep at the switch."

    Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the state Spanberger represents.

    -- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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