The US Classification System Is Broken, Lawmakers Say After Briefing on Massive Intel Leak

Massachusetts Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira.
Massachusetts Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, seated second from right, appears in U.S. District Court, in Boston, Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Margaret Small)

Lawmakers had many unanswered questions after briefings from administration officials this week about an airman's alleged leak of reams of classified documents, but say one thing is clear: The system for deciding what information is classified and who has access to it is broken.

For years, lawmakers have expressed concern both that too much information is shielded from public scrutiny using classification labels and that the process for protecting government secrets is vulnerable to mishandling. Bipartisan interest in reforms had already been accelerating in recent months following the discovery of classified information in the homes and private offices of former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence.

Now, lawmakers say the arrest of 21-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira on allegations that he posted scores of top-secret documents to an online chat forum underscores their warnings. However, specific ideas for exactly how to fix classification and security clearance processes have been vanishingly rare, with elected officials saying proposals will depend on the findings from investigations into the Guardsman's alleged leak.

Read Next: Bronze Star Recipient and VA Chief of Staff Nominated for No. 2 Job at VA

"Clearly, there's going to be some changes," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., told reporters after a closed-door briefing Wednesday afternoon. "Now we, in a sense, have potentially the worst of both worlds where we have an overclassification problem and at the same time, in the public domain, it's been reported that we have more than 4 million people with clearances. So how do you square those?"

Last week, Teixeira was arrested and charged with violations of the Espionage Act tied to allegations that he shared top-secret documents for months with a group he led on Discord, a social media platform popular with gamers. Teixeira worked in an IT job in an intelligence unit of the Massachusetts National Guard and held a top-secret security clearance with the added designation of being able to access even more closely held information known as sensitive compartmented information.

    The full House and Senate were briefed on the case late Wednesday afternoon by National Intelligence Director Avril Haines, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security Ronald Moultrie, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Christopher Grady and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

    Watchdogs have warned for years of problems with the security clearance process. On Thursday, the Government Accountability Office again listed security clearances on its biennial "high risk list" of programs vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse or mismanagement.

    "While the ongoing reforms in this area are promising, challenges remain regarding the timely processing of clearances, a lack of performance measures to assess quality at all stages of the process, and addressing IT system challenges," the GAO said.

    Meanwhile, lawmakers have bristled for years that too much information is being classified, oftentimes to prevent embarrassing details from becoming public. While they have not argued that the information in the Discord leaks was improperly classified, some are saying the case is indicative of the overall issues with the classification system.

    "We have so many classified documents, and then we have such an incredible procedure in terms of vetting, and are we doing all of this and not really focusing on what needs to be done to the point where there are so many documents, there are so many procedures that you can't possibly do at all," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. "It seems to me like we're trying to protect so much that the job becomes impossible and inevitably things that really, really matter slips through the cracks."

    Other lawmakers were skeptical Congress needs to step in with reforms.

    "I'm not convinced that they need legislation," said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who added he was awaiting the result of investigations into the leak to see whether there are systemic problems. "I think they need better enforcement of their own standards."

    Any legislative response to the Discord leak is likely on hold until after the administration's reviews.

    In addition to the law enforcement investigation into Teixeira, the military has launched a series of investigations to probe access to classified information and whether Teixeira's unit, the 102nd Intelligence Wing at Otis Air National Guard Base, complied with existing safeguards.

    Several lawmakers complained about a lack of answers at Wednesday's briefings, including what the full scope of the leak is, how the leak wasn't detected sooner and what steps the administration is taking to prevent future leaks -- answers lawmakers say are imperative before they act.

    "Those reforms have to be informed by information about how this happened," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "We don't have that information. We can't make those reforms."

    Rubio accused the administration of withholding information from lawmakers, though he did allow for the possibility that officials also don't know the answers themselves, something he said is "even worse."

    Rubio said it is concerning for "an IT person to have access to all of this in a way and in a format that he could disclose it in the way he did."

    "There are hundreds, potentially thousands of members in the Armed Services that have equal access that are not doing this," Rubio said. "So what's unique about this one individual is something that the criminal justice system will define. I think the more important part is, how is this information compartmented?"

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

    Related: Air Force Launches Investigation of Teixeira's Guard Unit After Leak Arrest

    Story Continues