Discord Leaks Show the Perils of Over-Classification

National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, reflected in an image.
A photo illustration created on April 13, 2023, shows the suspect, National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, reflected in an image of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

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The arrest of a 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard for allegedly leaking classified intelligence material is a startling twist in a case that has damaged relations with allies, exposed concerns about the war in Ukraine, and provided other countries with valuable information about the United States' spying methods. President Joe Biden’s administration should conduct a thorough probe of the vulnerabilities that allowed the breach to occur — starting with why so many people across the government require access to such information in the first place.

Federal authorities believe that Airman Jack Teixeira is responsible for posting hundreds of pages of documents on Discord, a social media site popular among video gamers. Much of the material was top secret and had been circulated by the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Teixeira appears to have printed out the documents while working inside a secure facility at a military base in Massachusetts, then taken them away without being detected.

The fallout is still unclear. The documents reveal U.S. doubts about Ukraine’s ability to recapture territory from Russia, which could increase pressure on Western governments to scale back involvement in the war. The leak has embarrassed the Biden administration, affirming the widely known but little-publicized fact that the U.S. spies even on its close allies. While it appears less extensive than other recent breaches — such as the 2013 revelations by former contractor Edward Snowden about National Security Agency surveillance programs — it underscores the continued vulnerability of the government’s system for guarding secret information.

So what should be done? The Pentagon will doubtless scrutinize the breakdown and tighten procedures in facilities that handle sensitive information. But there are limits to that approach. Efforts to further lock down hundreds of U.S. installations worldwide would be inordinately expensive — with no guarantee of success. Tighter restrictions on certain material would face the same trade-off: some gain in security, but at the cost of less efficiency, less intelligence sharing, and an impaired ability to respond quickly to threats.

A better approach would be to reduce the number of positions that grant high-level security clearances. More than 4 million Americans have such a clearance, and some 1.3 million are allowed to see top secret material. Those numbers have been driven, in turn, by the proliferation of pointlessly classified information, much of which has little or no national security value. Senators from both parties and the director of national intelligence have called for a governmentwide review of over-classification. This should be an urgent priority. If less material were classified, fewer people would need clearances.

No system is foolproof, so deterrence is crucial. People working in national-security fields should be reminded of the consequences of betraying the public trust. Over the past decade, the government’s record for punishing leakers has been spotty at best, from the failure to arrest Snowden to President Barack Obama’s decision to commute the sentence of former Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning. In some quarters, their crimes are even seen as commendable. Perhaps this encourages others to think such treachery isn’t grave. They need to be disabused.


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