Pentagon Plans Tighter Controls to Protect Classified Information Following Secret Documents Leak

Wednesday, the Pentagon announced plans to tighten protection for classified information after the explosive leaks of hundreds of intelligence documents accessed through security gaps at a Massachusetts Air National Guard base.

Jack Teixeira, Airman 1st Class, is accused of leaking highly classified military documents in a chatroom on Discord, a social media platform that began as a hangout for gamers. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin released a memo Wednesday ordering all of the department’s secured rooms where classified information is accessed and stored to be brought into compliance with intelligence community standards for tracking and oversight. The changes call for additional controls to ensure documents aren’t removed improperly, increased levels of physical security, and the assignment of top-secret control officers to monitor users. 

A senior defense official who briefed reporters on the new directives said the department is working to increase accountability by using technology that can track what workers are doing more easily and what information they are accessing. At the same time, the official said defense leaders don’t want to impede the ability to share crucial information across the government when needed. 

When asked if the department is working to limit the number of people who have access to classified information, the defense official said it is an effort to ensure that the department is properly determining what information individuals may access as well as making sure that employees need to know the classified material they are reading. 

The official spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with ground rules with the Pentagon for the briefing. 

In the memo, Secretary Austin said the sensitive compartmented information facilities, SCIFs, must be monitored to prevent the use of electronic devices inside the rooms. According to the memo, the effort would include “appropriate electronic device detection systems and mitigation measures” inside secret areas. 

According to authorities, Teixeira began sharing military secrets by first typing out classified documents, removing them from the base, and then taking them home to photograph. 

Teixeira worked as a “cyber transport systems specialist,” essentially an IT specialist responsible for military communications networks, giving him broad access to the classified computing networks of the military. 

The case highlighted the potential vulnerabilities the department faces. At the same time, according to a senior defense official, it works to safeguard classified information across the globe at military facilities with varying levels of security procedures and layers of protection. 

“There wasn’t a single point of failure,” added the official. 

A court filing in Teixeira’s case revealed that supervisors with the Air National Guard warned him at least three times about improper access to classified information; however, no further action to restrict his access or clearance was taken. 

The official said one of the department’s concerns found in the review was that facilities that were farther from headquarters had were ambiguous on some of the classified information policies of the military, including when a security violation was required to be reported higher up the chain of command. 

Teixeira pleaded not guilty last month to felony federal charges. 

Breach has led to sweeping security reviews

The breach has led to sweeping security reviews looking at the large number of users with access to confidential information, who could be tracking them, and whether or not there is a need to know. 

Secretary Austin also directed the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency to develop ways to more rapidly flag and communicate concerns to local commanders about personnel, including how “continuous vetting information” — credit reports or other indicators that are tracked as part of background checks or updated reports on criminal records — can be shared more rapidly to flag a possible security risk. 

According to a 2017 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, an estimated four million people in the United States hold security clearances. Of those, around 1.3 million are cleared to access classified information.

Previously, the Defense Department has been criticized for delays in vetting new employees for security clearances for over-classifying information. Officials tried to balance concerns against efforts to protect the documents better without slowing down further the necessary access to information, according to the official. 

More recent figures were not available immediately. However, some lawmakers have long wanted to update the system of classifying information in the U.S. and add safeguards for tracking and storing documents.