After Pentagon Leak, Democrats and Republicans Unite to Reform Classification System

Members of law enforcement assemble on a road in Dighton, Mass.
Members of law enforcement assemble on a road, April 13, 2023, in Dighton, Mass., near where FBI agents converged on the home of a Massachusetts Air National Guard member who has emerged as a main person of interest in the disclosure of highly classified military documents on the Ukraine. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

A bipartisan group of senators is pushing to overhaul how the U.S. handles classified information, an effort spurred partly by the recent alleged leaks of top secret Pentagon documents on an internet forum by an Air National Guardsman.

The package of bills unveiled Wednesday by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., and other senators from both parties takes aim at overclassification, which senators say impedes the ability to protect truly sensitive information, and insider threats exemplified by the criminal charges against the Massachusetts airman, who had a clearance and access.

"We've got a byzantine, bizarre, bureaucratic system that has not kept up with the times," Warner said at a news conference unveiling the proposal. "Consequently, we continue to vastly overclassify huge amounts of information, while at the same time not fully protecting our nation's most important secrets."

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"We've, as a matter of fact, so overclassified that our military has said that that level of overclassification leads to a hindrance of working smoothly with our allies around the world," he said.

Senators have been working on the proposal for months, first driven by the discovery of classified documents in the homes and private offices of former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence.

But the effort grew more urgent after the revelation that a 21-year-old Air National Guardsman allegedly printed out reams of classified documents and posted them online, divulging secret U.S. assessments about the war in Ukraine and actions of American allies and adversaries alike.

Airman 1st Class Jack Teixeira, who worked in an IT job and held a top secret security clearance, has been arrested and charged with violations of the Espionage Act over allegations that he spent months posting classified information to a social media platform called Discord.

Teixeira is next scheduled to appear in court Thursday afternoon for his detention hearing, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts.

Documents that prosecutors filed in support of their motion to keep him detained for the duration of his trial allege he has a history of making violent, racist threats, including an incident that resulted in his suspension from high school -- raising questions about whether red flags came up during vetting processes to enlist and obtain a security clearance.

Defense officials have launched a series of reviews and investigations in the wake of Teixeira's arrest, including a 45-day review ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin of how the Pentagon handles classified information. Austin ordered the review in mid-April, meaning the 45-day deadline is nearing.

The Senate proposal, which is composed of two separate bills, would mandate "minimum standards" for insider threat programs across the federal government "so that trusted insiders cannot walk undetected out of government buildings with our most closely guarded secrets," according to a summary of the proposal.

The minimum standards would include appointing senior officials at every government agency with access to classified information to oversee an insider threat program, monitoring user activity on classified networks, building an analytical program to assess the information gleaned from monitoring user activity, and providing annual insider threat training, according to the bill text.

"We've seen the failure of those insider threat programs with the recent incident of Airman Teixeira," Warner said. "There are ways that you can make sure you monitor how many copies are being made. There are ways to better make sure people are not walking off with documents. There are ways to make sure that even if you see a document you only see a header, but not the content."

The proposal also takes steps to curb the number of people with security clearances by directing federal agencies to study the necessity of the number and types of security clearances, according to the summary. More than 4 million people have some form of security clearance right now, senators said.

Too many people having security clearances is another consequence of overclassification, the senators at the news conference said.

"When 4 million people have a right to have access to something, it seems like it's hardly a secret," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

The bulk of the proposal deals with overclassification. Provisions meant to cut down on the amount of information that's classified would require agencies to consider whether the risk from disclosure outweighs the public's right to know, set a 25-year period for classification that could be extended only by an agency head or the president, and create financial incentives that effectively tax agencies based on the number of classified records they create and use the proceeds to invest in declassification technologies.

In addition to Warner and Cornyn, the effort is being backed by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan.

The senators said they are in talks about how to move the legislation forward and expressed confidence the proposal will be more than a "messaging bill" even as they acknowledged the administration will likely push back on some of the provisions.

In addition to plugging holes to prevent future leaks, senators argued classification reforms are necessary because overclassification allows conspiracy theories to flourish.

"It's why so many Americans think that the CIA may be actually hiding the whereabouts of Bigfoot or that the moon landing was faked or that 9/11 was somehow backed by the U.S. government," Warner said. "Americans have to have confidence that when their government has a piece of information that is classified that there's a good reason behind it."

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

Related: 2 Air Guard Leaders in Accused Pentagon Leaker's Massachusetts Unit Suspended

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