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Pentagon chief announces tighter controls after high-profile leak

The Pentagon has announced plans to tighten its control of classified information months after a series of alleged leaks by a low-ranking service member roiled United States officials.

The plan to shore up how the Department of Defense maintains sensitive information was outlined in a memo released on Wednesday by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. It followed a 45-day review of department practices.

The review did not identify a single point of failure. But Austin said it “identified areas where we can and must improve accountability measures to prevent the compromise of CNSI [classified national security information], to include addressing insider threats”.

The plan comes after Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guard IT specialist, was arrested for allegedly posting highly sensitive documents to a private chat group on the social media platform Discord.

The documents quickly spread across the internet and were gradually reported on by US media. They contained embarrassing revelations about the US spying on allies, as well as unvarnished assessments of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the military capabilities of other countries.

United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has outlined a plan to tighten controls of classified information [File: Virginia Mayo/AP Photo]

Wednesday’s memo ordered that the department’s secured rooms — where classified information is stored and accessed — be brought into compliance with intelligence community standards for oversight and tracking.

The proposed changes include increased levels of physical security, the appointment of “top secret control officers”, the establishment of a new office for insider threats, and the implementation of systems to detect electronic devices in sensitive work areas.

Austin also directed the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency to develop ways to quickly flag and communicate concerns about personnel to local commanders.

Speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity, a senior defence official said the changes were meant to balance the need for increased accountability with the ability to share critical information across the government.

An estimated 4 million people hold US security clearances, according to a 2017 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Of those, roughly 1.3 million are cleared to access top-secret information.

Teixeira enlisted in the Air National Guard in 2019 and worked as a “cyber transport systems specialist”, affording him top-secret security clearance. Prosecutors have said Teixeira began posting sensitive information online by typing out documents.

He later removed the classified documents from the base and took them home to photograph them. He shared the information with a small group of people in a chatroom on Discord, a social media platform for gamers.

Court filings in Teixeira’s case revealed that supervisors had warned him at least three times about improper access to classified information, but no further action to restrict his clearance or access was taken.

He pleaded not guilty last month to six counts of wilful retention and transmission of classified information relating to national defence. Each charge carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, up to three years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $250,000, the Justice Department has said.

The leaked documents contained several revelations, including the US’s bleak assessment of Ukraine’s counteroffensive efforts.

Another document indicated officials in Egypt, to which the US annually provides a large block of unconditioned military aid, schemed to provide artillery to Russia. A third, meanwhile, showed that the US was monitoring internal South Korean debate over providing arms to Ukraine.

Yet another document showed a US assessment that senior Mossad leaders had “advocated” for officials from the spy agency, as well as citizens, to take part in protests against the Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms.

The leak represented the biggest such breach since the 2013 dump of National Security Agency documents by Edward Snowden. It has raised tough questions about how security clearance is awarded and how that access is overseen.


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