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What U.S. intelligence agencies can do to prevent future data leaks


Twenty-one-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira is in a Boston courtroom this morning responding to charges that he's behind a recent leak of intelligence documents. He was arrested yesterday at his family home. The documents he's accused of leaking included sensitive Ukraine war assessments and exposed the U.S. spying on its allies. It may be one of the largest intelligence breaches in the last decade. Earlier, I spoke with Glenn Gerstell, former general counsel of the National Security Agency. I asked him how a 21-year-old with such a short time in the military, a person posting racist and antisemitic things with his friends in a gaming group, had access to such sensitive and secretive documents.

GLENN GERSTELL: That, of course, is the big question. And obviously, there's going to be an inquiry both within the intelligence community and more specifically within the military to find those answers to that very question. But just to start with the basics, this - according to press reports, this man was working as a Air National Guardsman and presumably had a top secret security clearance, which wouldn't be anything unusual for someone low level and young, because sometimes some of the newer-entry people - especially in the IT area, which is where he worked - would have had to have access to classified information to do their work because they were keeping the network secure, for example. And that would require a top-secret clearance. But...

FADEL: So what safeguards, if I could just ask...


FADEL: What safeguards are supposed to be in place to prevent people with this kind of access, because it sounds like a lot of people have this kind of access, from leaking intelligence?

GERSTELL: Sure. So as I said, it's not unusual that he had the access. The problem is, how was he allowed to get to these materials? And that's where there obviously is a system failure. He shouldn't be able to have access to anything more than he needs to do for his job. There's a so-called need-to-know principle. And that seems to have been ignored, at least in practice, in this area. He was able to access things from the CIA, from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, reports having nothing really to do with his job or the Massachusetts Air National Guard. And he was able, evidently, to take pieces of paper - print this out on pieces of paper and take them home. And again, that's a huge security failure that we're going to have to investigate.

FADEL: Now, in light of this leak, the Pentagon wants to limit the number of employees who are granted top secret clearance. What would that look like?

GERSTELL: So after every one of these leaks - the Snowden leak, the Chelsea Manning leak, whatever - there's a quite understandable reaction to clamp down and make sure that access is limited so this kind of thing doesn't happen again. That's offset by a very strong desire, especially after 9/11, when the intelligence and defense communities were faulted for not sharing information widely enough - there's another trend that pushes in the opposite direction that says more people within the defense and intelligence community need information. They need to so-called connect the dots. And so there's this tension between security on one hand, and at the same time, making sure we have available information to people who need it to make the decisions. And that's something that the pendulum just swings back and forth on. We don't seem to get that balance right.

FADEL: Now, you mentioned Snowden and Chelsea Manning, which seem like very different leaks and ultimately led to some public accountability, especially in the Snowden case, an NSA surveillance program of Americans that was ultimately deemed illegal and possibly unconstitutional. I mean, free speech advocates see some of these leaks as a path to public accountability that otherwise Americans wouldn't get.

GERSTELL: I don't think that's true at all. And in this particular case, this is not a politically...

FADEL: A very different case, as we mentioned.

GERSTELL: Really not politically motivated. This is just someone who, for whatever reasons, was getting excited and enjoyed - almost as if getting a thrill out of shoplifting, so to speak, not to trivialize this, but was taking some of the nation's secrets and posting them on a Discord chat group with some of his friends just to make himself look big.

FADEL: Do you think allies that are looking at the U.S. right now and these documents are wondering if the intelligence community can keep its secrets?

GERSTELL: I think there's surely another question going on in the part of allies who share information with us. But I think, ultimately, they understand these - this is a one-time, although serious, accident. And I don't think it's going to really affect any long-term relationship with allies. There'll be some questioning. But I think, long term, things are going to continue as they are, with the United States making a stronger effort to wrap this up.

FADEL: Glenn Gerstell is former general counsel of the National Security Agency.

Thank you for your time and your insights.

GERSTELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.