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Jack Teixeira's alleged Discord leaks show why the US should stop showering Top Secret clearances on 21-year-old keyboard warriors

Mattathias Schwartz   

Jack Teixeira's alleged Discord leaks show why the US should stop showering Top Secret clearances on 21-year-old keyboard warriors

Imagine you've spent billions of dollars building the world's fastest race car. Then you decide to put a young kid behind the wheel, only to see them crash the car into the walls of the track.

Not just once, but over and over again.

It's a dangerous proposition for the kid. You're giving them a powerful tool without teaching them how to use it.

Plus, it's really, really expensive.

Nevertheless, that looks to be the US intelligence community's approach to handling classified information.

The tangled views of Jack Teixeira, who was indicted Friday in connection with leaking hundreds of classified documents to a private Discord server, are still coming into focus. But one thing is already clear. At 21 years old, Teixeira is old enough to vote, drink, and serve in the armed forces. But his alleged behavior indicates that despite his training, he was little more than a child, three years into his first enlistment. An airman at a National Guard unit in Massachusetts, he seems to have spent much of his free time hanging out online, arguing with strangers, and venting stupid and reportedly racist opinions. A lot of them had to do with a war in Ukraine that he himself, by all appearances, knew next to nothing about.

Nevertheless, the United States government allegedly saw fit to make this young man a Cyber Transport Systems Journeyman, and grant him access to some of its most closely guarded secrets, the fruits of an intelligence apparatus that costs taxpayers some $90 billion a year. Why?

Part of the problem here has to do with basic math. Classification is a World War Two-era legacy system that was designed to regulate the flow of secret paper — physical documents carried around in pouches and bound with brass tacks or staples. Today, classification governs how an ever-expanding pool of employees and contractors at combatant commands, joint task forces, and three-letter agencies can access a shadowy global network of digital assets. There are classified phone systems, email systems, fiber optic cables, and a Wikipedia clone. There are special rooms called SCIFs for accessing and discussing this information. More than 2 million people hold security clearances that allow them to access the terabytes of data flowing through this global network. Each one of them represents a potential point of failure. Plus, they all have smartphones. A couple of generations ago, Daniel Ellsberg had to borrow a friend's photocopier to make copies of a secret Pentagon report for the media. When I visited Ellsberg's home in California, he showed me how he'd used a typewriter to reconstruct internal government documents one keystroke at a time. Today, a leak that would have taken Ellsberg months can be pulled off in seconds with a click-and-drag to a USB, or a few snaps of an iPhone camera.

The math has been stacked against the secret-keepers for a generation. But what's different about the Teixeira case is the apparent pointlessness. Earlier leaks were targeted public statements made by self-styled whistleblowers with discernible political motives. Whatever you might think of their views, they were actually trying to reveal perceived wrongdoing. Ellsberg's leak was intended to expose the Pentagon's privately pessimistic view of the Vietnam War. Edward Snowden showed how the NSA and phone companies were playing fast and loose with the Fourth Amendment. Reality Winner wanted to prove that Russian interference in the 2016 election was not, as certain Substack edgelords continue to claim, a complete fiction. Daniel Hale and Chelsea Manning wanted to give US voters an up-close view of the carnage inflicted by their democratically elected overseas killing machine.

Teixeira, meanwhile, allegedly did it not for country, but for clout. He was arrested Thursday and did not enter a plea at a federal court appearance the next day. According to reporting by the New York Times and Washington Post, his intended audience was a small circle of pseudonymous online friends. The scattershot trove of documents that he transcribed and later photographed were never supposed to circulate beyond this closed circle of two dozen Discord users. And Teixeira's alleged motives — a mix of braggadocio and a desire to "educate" his cronies about a war that he himself was observing from a keyboard, an ocean away — simply do not make sense beyond the confines of the shitposting chatroom environment that fostered them. Among other things, the Teixeira case is an instance of what social media experts had dubbed "context collapse," the accidental leakage of audience-specific content from insiders who understand it to a larger group of outsiders who do not.

So the last generation of leakers, right or wrong, could reasonably claim to be thinking grown-ups with articulable reasons for breaking laws that come with severe penalties. Teixeira hasn't yet made a public statement, but the early reporting suggests this was all done to simply feel more important than he was.

In the absence of a legible political argument from Teixeira, what's left is a case study in total systemic dysfunction. The nakedness of that meltdown offers an opportunity for some desperately needed reform. With Snowden and others, the country could argue about whether they were traitors for violating their oaths or heroes for obeying a higher set of Constitutional obligations. Their disclosures opened up an important and ongoing debate about how much information should be classified in the first place, and how concealing the underlying facts about critical questions in the name of "national security" tends to erode our democracy.

The Teixeira case exposes something entirely different, how the US classification system fails to deliver not only in a high-minded democratic sense, but also on its own terms, namely the ability to make a select group of people trustable in the keeping of secrets. Before, the debate was whether the size of the classified world tended to undermine democracy. (For the record, I believe it does.) Now, it's worth asking whether it's in the process of collapsing under its own weight – a possibility underscored by the apparent leak's emergence at an obscure Cape Cod outpost, far from the US military's core decision-making hubs.

Aside from the question of how many people have access to secrets, it's also worth considering how many of those supposed secrets belong on classified systems at all. Some of what Teixeira allegedly posted contains specific data about troop numbers and casualties; other items relay publicly reported information and read like front-of-the-book briefings from the Economist. The redundancy made me think of a story I had heard, about a 9/11 commissioner who was brought into a classified chamber and given a secret file. The commissioner opened the file, and out fell a packet of newspaper clippings.

"This is all already out there," the investigator said. "Yes," said his agency escort. "But now you know that it's true."

That story came to me secondhand, but it illustrates an important point about the risks of establishing a segregated realm of premium information. In addition to cutting the people off from the truth, it can put blinders on the national-security elite, cutting them off from the more obvious insights of our open-source reality.

The path to reforming the classification system begins with some simple questions: Who screened and trained Teixeira? How many others are out there — young men and women with few years and too much time on their hands? Did a low-ranking airman in the Massachusetts Air National Guard actually need to view Top Secret and Sensitive Compartmented intelligence in order to do his job maintaining secret computer networks? Who was his supervisor? Who was tracking the whereabouts of the volume of secret files he appears to have sent to the printer? Who were his colleagues? Why didn't anyone have an inkling of what he was up to for months, not until the documents he allegedly transcribed and photographed started showing up on 4chan? Who is minding the store here?

If taxpayers are going to continue to shell out $90 billion a year for a bureaucracy that they're legally barred from knowing much about, they shouldn't feel like they're setting that money on fire. Voters can debate the intelligence community's values, its transparency, and its objectives. But at a bare minimum, the apparatus should actually work.

Update: Chelsea Manning's name has been corrected.