The Bunker: What the Leak Really Reveals

The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.

This week in The Bunker: The illegal posting of hundreds of top-secret Pentagon documents says just as much about a creaky U.S. intelligence network as it does about Airman 1st Class Jack Teixeira; and more.


Hyperventilation over leak masks the real problem

To buy into the national security establishment’s heartburn over Airman 1st Class Jack Teixeira’s leak of top-secret documents is to buy into the Pentagon’s Brobdingnagian military-industrial-intelligence complex. The handwringing from the Pentagon’s E-ring (PDF) to the pearl-clutching on Capitol Hill only makes sense if you believe we’re getting our money’s worth out of the nearly $90 billion we spend each year trying to dig up dirt on the bad (and, yes, Virginia, sometimes the good) guys. You know: the same intelligence “fact”ory that missed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that failed us in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Just as the Pentagon is too wedded to Cold War-era industrial warfare that relies on big and costly weapons, the U.S. intelligence community relies on a swarm of 18 intelligence agencies surveying petabytes of information every day before distributing much of it around the world via the weakest link in the intel chain: human beings.

That’s especially true when the notion of U.S. citizenship is blown to smithereens. Teixeira, 21, seemed to be more interested in impressing his on-line pals with top-secret briefing slides than protecting his real-life country by sticking to his written oath to handle them properly. He was not a spy, a lone wolf terrorist, a righteous whistleblower, or a revolutionary seeking to overthrow the U.S. government from within. He “worried the federal government had become too powerful,” a member of Teixeira’s Discord (PDF) online chat room told the Associated Press.

The leak, the Pentagon’s biggest in a decade, divulged many secrets, including the role the U.S. is playing in Ukraine’s defense, Russia’s rickety military, and embarrassing details about how the U.S. spies on its allies. The FBI, in an affidavit (PDF) outlining the case, said Teixeira’s alleged actions “reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security” of the United States.

The case embarrassed the Pentagon in three ways. Teixeira was able to pilfer highly classified material without anyone noticing. Then he secretly shared hundreds documents with his gamer buddies for about eight months, until one of them published them elsewhere online, where they sauntered through cyberspace for five weeks before the U.S. government learned of their existence April 6 in the New York Times. Finally, although he was an undetected “insider threat,” he wasn’t a cyber spy: Teixeira simply photographed printed-out documents. He was an analog actor — a human Xerox machine — in the digital age. He faces up to 15 years in prison based on charges already filed, but more charges are possible. So are more documents.

Teixeira comes from a military family, and he surrendered April 13 to the FBI under a U.S. flag proudly flying at the front door of his Massachusetts home. He joined the Air National Guard in 2019 and spent seven weeks in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, before spending 136 days at a Mississippi base to become a cyber transport systems specialist. Teixeira began serving on active duty last fall, when his National Guard stint became a full-time gig monitoring and fixing communications gear and computers for the 102nd Intelligence Wing at Cape Cod’s Otis Air National Guard Base. “A vast, global communications network is one of the many things that makes us the most powerful air force on the planet,” the service says of Teixeira’s (former) job.

In that post, Teixeira had access to the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (pronounced JAY-wix), a Pentagon intranet system designed to share top secret intelligence (something that is sure to be rolled back). Of course, every time this happens — Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Reality Winner, come to mind — U.S. intelligence czars vainly insist they will build a better mousetrap to keep it from happening again. But such déjà vu is inevitable when the nation’s huge, jury-rigged intelligence network gives nearly three million people — almost half with a top secret clearance, like Teixeira’s — access to classified documents.

There are small signs of progress. One of the 18 U.S. intelligence agencies has tried to get a handle on over-classification. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which collects spy imagery for the military, realized seven years ago that it had 65 security classification guidebooks, many inherited from ancestral agencies. They “were conflicting, vague, or subjective,” noted a report (PDF) last month by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), a nonprofit research group. Most “were created to keep information from being released.” It took five months to boil them down to a single volume. “Currently, our government has over 2,000 security classification guidebooks and roughly 1,400 original classification authorities,” NPEC Director Henry Sokolski says. “Other national security agencies can replicate this success.”

“This was a major security breach that cannot be allowed to happen again,” [told ya!] Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), who chairs the armed services committee, said. Not everyone agrees (PDF). “Jake [sic] Teixeira is white, male, christian, and antiwar,” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) tweeted. “That makes him an enemy to the Biden regime.” Kash Patel, who served as chief of staff to then-President Donald Trump’s final defense secretary, smells a cover-up. “I think the DOD and the [intelligence community] gave it to [the New York Times and the Washington Post],” he said. “They’re giving it to them to say we need, you know, we needed a cover-up. We need to make sure people think Ukraine’s working, we need to make it seem like it’s one rogue 21-year-old actor in some airbase in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.”

The ethos of what it means to be an American — in uniform or not — is waning. Instead, we’ve got a multilayered cake stratified by politics, economics, religion, anti-authoritarianism (and authoritarianism), age, and ego, with a shrinking understanding of how to do what is right. Alas, the American Experiment — the essence of what it means to be the United States — is in jeopardy when compatriots feel so free to march to their own drummer.

Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence continues to operate like James Bond in an Elon Musk world.


Here’s what has caught the Bunker's eye recently

Logistics Challenge #1

The Army has stood up a Contested Logistics Cross-Functional Team to grapple with a possible war with China, Defense News reported April 11.

Logistics Challenge #2

The Pentagon’s preference to buy weapons — instead of supporting them once bought — jeopardizes combat capability, Chris Dougherty said in an April 13 study at the Center for a New American Security.

Logistics Challenge #3

The F-35’s shortage of spare parts and other support could ground many of them during war, the War Zone reported April 13.

Thanks for bivouacking with The Bunker this week. Consider sharing with a pal and encouraging them to sign up here.