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What can be done to stop the next attempt to leak military secrets?


The National Guard airman suspected of leaking classified documents is due in court today. His case has pushed the Air Force to ask how it can secure whatever secrets remain. Steve Walsh from our member station WHRO in Norfolk reports it's hard.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: After Airman First Class Jack Teixeira was arrested on charges of leaking classified documents to an online chat room, commanders throughout the Air Force and Space Force were left with a question - what can be done to stop the next leak? Mark Cooter is a retired Air Force intelligence officer.

MARK COOTER: It's not sexy. Whatever is going to come out of this that's going to be effective, there won't be a one single thing that is going to keep this from ever happening again by doing this one thing. That never happens that way.

WALSH: Before he retired in 2013, Cooter commanded an intelligence unit at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. It coordinated with the Massachusetts National Guard unit where Teixeira was stationed.

COOTER: They were kind of hooked to us to provide additional capacity, and they were good at it.

WALSH: Intelligence continues to expand rapidly. Until Teixeira's guard unit was suspended from its intelligence mission after the leak was uncovered, it was one of 27 installations worldwide to handle one type of data. The unit was processing information from drones around the world.

COOTER: Not just the drones, but manned aircraft as well, processing images or video off of there and making products for the commanders or the warfighter.

WALSH: Cooter says one of the many things commanders will have to consider is whether too much classified information ends up on paper because some people don't want to read it off of a computer screen. But each leak is different, says CrowdStrike co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch. He points to the fact that Teixeira was found to have circulated racist memes along with the classified material.

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: I would argue that any time you have a racist person inside your organization, whether it's a military intelligence community or even a company out there, that's going to be, at a minimum, highly disruptive, to say the least.

WALSH: Teixeira released reams of documents onto a private Discord chat room to a group of mainly young gamers. He hasn't spoken publicly since his arrest. So far, he hasn't relayed signs that he was trying to impact U.S. policy.

ALPEROVITCH: Well, it's clear here that he wanted to potentially look cool, hanging out on this chat room. That's something that you can look for. I think we need to do a much better job of identifying those types of people that may be trying to get information out there to beef up their own reputations.

WALSH: He thinks commanders need to look at whether they are relying too heavily on younger airmen. The New York Times reports Teixeira may have begun sharing classified material on Discord as far back as the start of the war in Ukraine in February 2022. That's only four months after the 21-year-old began working full-time for the guard unit.

SINA BEAGHLEY: That's a real hard one for me.

WALSH: Sina Beaghley is with the RAND Corporation.

BEAGHLEY: Because there are substantial number of individuals in their late teens and early 20s performing exceptionally in national security missions, and we need those individuals.

WALSH: Beaghley coordinated the National Security Council review after Edward Snowden, a low-level IT contractor who was caught leaking thousands of classified documents. She says the vetting process for security clearances does monitor social media, a daunting task when an estimated 4 million people have some type of security clearance.

BEAGHLEY: They can see, when an individual posts publicly, if they can attribute the social media presence to the individual. If someone's posting in an anonymous way, there's a lot of gaps. But how do you get some kind of social media monitoring on 4 million cleared individuals? So these are big challenges.

WALSH: Commanders have 30 days to brief the men and women under them on how to guard against future leaks. Meanwhile, the commander of the Massachusetts Air National Guard where Jack Teixeira worked has been relieved, pending investigation.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.

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