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The April arrest of Massachusetts Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira produced a flurry of editorials and op-eds seeking to explain the problems and possible solutions tied up in protecting national security information.
These ranged from complaints about the issue of rampant overclassification and awarding of security clearances, leadership mistakes, missed red flags, and mental health screening. And while most of those points are true, it's eerily similar to past prescriptive discussions that yielded few solutions.
It's often easier and reassuring to blame a flawed individual, but addressing institutional and systemic failings can produce better solutions. Details about Teixeira's past suggesting social isolation are tragically familiar. That narrative lacks an understanding of recent cultural shifts and environmental factors of the social media, post-pandemic generation representative of America's young adults.
Two aspects of the Teixeira leak case distinguish themselves from previous high-profile classified leaks by Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Reality Winner. The first is the influence of an unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. The second: Teixeira's alleged motive.
A comprehensive study of the generational and societal changes that appear to be central to this recent leak may provide answers to how our military can better address these issues and create a more inclusive and supportive culture conscious of the challenges faced by post-pandemic recruits.
Impact of COVID-19
The timing and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent nationwide lockdowns are a striking storyline. Teixeira reportedly joined the Massachusetts Air National Guard in September 2019, before finishing high school, and graduated in spring 2020 after virtual instruction, like most of his peers across the country. Naturally, during the pandemic lockdown, Teixeira strengthened ties with members of his online Discord chat community.
That increased emphasis on an online life was true for many kids. The National Center for Education Statistics tracked that during spring 2020, 77% of American public schools moved to online remote learning and 84% of undergraduate students attended some or all their classes online. A year later, only 52% of public school students received in-person full-time education. Correspondingly, a 2019-2021 medical study found children from four to twelve years of age increased daily screen time by an average of nearly 1.5 hours per day compared to pre-pandemic levels. The study also showed these levels remained high even after pandemic restrictions were lifted.
Americans in this age group will reach military enlistment age in 2026. In addition to anecdotal evidence from educators and parents, researchers at Harvard note that pandemic-related remote learning has had a negative effect on children's emotional, social and relational development. Young Americans already of military age who went to high school online, like Jack Teixeira, themselves reported lower levels of social, emotional and academic well-being, especially those in their late teen years (10th through 12th grade). according to a 2021 study by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth.
Reports indicate Teixeira exhibited loner and outlier behavior during his school career that differentiated him from other students. But we cannot fully dismiss that he was part of the American teen population that underwent massive upheaval during a critical stage of academic, social and emotional development. The research does not justify or excuse Teixeira's alleged actions, but the service branches and intelligence community cannot ignore the impacts of COVID-19. To do so is to commit a disservice to the futures of current and upcoming members of our military ranks.
Teixeira's apparent motivation to allegedly post sensitive information appears different from those of Snowden, Manning and Winner. These individuals all saw themselves as whistleblowers performing a duty to the American people by exposing secrets they felt the public needed to know. Reports from members of his Discord group say Teixeira wanted to impress and show off his access to confidential information. Kori Schake has written that his motive signals affirmation craving resulting from "emotional insecurity."
The whistleblower narrative suggests people like Snowden, Manning and Winner believed, albeit wrongfully, they were serving a greater good. Teixeira's alleged self-serving motive bucks this pattern. Instead, he appeared to be motivated by self-aggrandizement and self-importance and perhaps felt greater belonging and acceptance by friends and fellow gamers online than in his in-person interactions.
The motive shift from the whistleblower identity of the past illustrates an intricate problem in which military members could show greater allegiance to and shared identity with civilian friend groups than their unit or country. Though this is no new threat to the military's task of creating common ground, the present environment is unlike the past.
Societal and community norms have dramatically altered because of the internet and social media age. Critics point to the years surrounding 2012 as a tipping point for young adults and teens. This time corresponds to Facebook's acquisition of Instagram and the start of an era where an app-embedded smartphone was in every high schooler's pocket. Since then, studies have consistently shown the mental and emotional effects of these platforms on the well-being of developing minds. Accelerated by pandemic isolation, teens' in-person friendships and communities moved online.
A Complex Problem
Recent op-eds about the alleged Teixeira leak by retired Brig. Gen. Jack Hammond and E.M. Liddick highlight the role of mental and emotional health in national security and show the risks on both sides. Hammond notes the U.S. Surgeon General's warning about the American epidemic of loneliness and a study of mental illness prevalent among 18- to 25-year-olds and argues that those exhibiting signs of "loneliness, poor self-esteem, and grandiose narcissism" should not be approved for security clearances. Countering, Liddick argues the difficulty of defining loneliness criteria, points out generational changes in reporting statistics, and notes the risk of re-stigmatizing service members struggling with these issues.
While individuals who exhibit mentally unstable behavior should not handle sensitive information, red-flagging loneliness and low self-esteem as disqualifiers may not only stigmatize some military members but, perhaps more concerningly, disqualify a mass proportion of eligible recruits merely because they grew up in and survived a once-in-lifetime pandemic environment. The current and upcoming generation of Americans that will and must fill our military ranks as a national security necessity faced a coming-of-age development unlike any other living age group. We cannot assume all young Americans exposed to such conditions are high-risk or unqualified.
The post-pandemic environment is different. Amidst current recruiting challenges, academic fallout reaching all levels of education, and online realities that were not present a decade ago, the Defense Department must recognize reality and adjust to what comes with it. The solution is not obvious and won't be reached easily, but the military intelligence community cannot afford to miss the lessons the Teixeira case presents.
A solution will require avoiding the treatment of national security leaks as "a few bad apples" and confronting the monumental societal impacts of the digital revolution exacerbated by a pandemic event. The next generation to bear the defense burden must rise to the occasion, just as those that have come before it. These Americans deserve a leadership approach committed to balancing their unique challenges with the uncompromisable duties required of them.
-- Jon Hemler is a military and defense markets analyst with GovExec's Forecast International. He is a former naval officer, helicopter pilot, educator and civil servant, holding degrees from the U.S. Naval Academy and the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. The views expressed here are strictly his own and do not represent those of Forecast International or the federal government.