Americans discovered in April that hundreds of pages of secret documents had been posted on Discord, a voice and chat platform favored by the gaming community, and later spread to the wider worldwide web.
Within days, authorities tracked down and arrested 21-year-old Air National Guard Airman 1st Class Jack Teixeira for allegedly abusing his TS/SCI security clearance by copying and distributing documents on the web.
How is it, the public wondered, that our military trusts people so young with secrets so large? Is it wise to entrust those under 25 with national secrets when Hertz and Alamo won’t even rent them a car?
The case is reminiscent of that of Chelsea Manning, who as a 23-year-old Soldier, was arrested in 2010 for giving hundreds of thousands of secret documents to WikiLeaks. Initially sentenced to 35 years in prison, Manning’s sentence was commuted in 2017 in what remains a profoundly baffling decision.
Even if 99.99 percent of those cleared individuals could be trusted, 430 risky parties would remain.
Both cases involve very junior service members whose access to secret files was compromised, despite oaths of office, nondisclosure agreements, and extensive training. Both made use of the internet to share a volume of data that would have been all but impossible prior to the digital era.
The fact is, the military could not function if it didn’t trust volunteers in their teens and early 20s with security clearances. Indeed, the vast majority earn and deserve that trust.
Just under 3 million individuals held some kind of U.S. security clearance as of October 2019, according to a redacted report from the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. Another 1.3 million were cleared but were not actually accessing classified material at the time.
Even if 99.99 percent of those cleared individuals could be trusted, 430 risky parties would remain. Some might be foolish and sloppy, others criminally culpable. Either way, leaks are inevitable.
Conventional measures for mitigating that risk focus on foreign connections, debt troubles, addiction, and lifestyle choices that could make someone subject to blackmail. Eliminate those and most risks disappear. But it’s harder to nail down psychological factors that may arise well into adulthood or the poor judgment that comes from a less-than-fully developed brain. Science tells us the frontal lobe isn’t fully developed in men until they’re 25 or so.
A 2021 RAND study, “Updating Personnel Vetting and Security Clearance Guidelines for Future Generations,” notes that today’s young people not only grew up in a different world than their parents and grandparents, but that their attitudes, choices, and lifestyles are vastly different as well. That suggests continued changes to the way we clear people—and monitor them over time—must likewise evolve.
Clearance investigations examine 13 factors: allegiance to the United States; foreign influence; foreign preferences; sexual behavior; personal conduct; financial matters; alcohol consumption; drug and substance use and abuse; psychological conditions; criminal conduct; past handling of protected information; outside activities; and use of information technology.
It’s the last of these that demand more attention and study. Though there is no public database that shows which of these factors is most likely to sink a clearance request, it is clear which factors are the cause of cases that get appealed. Most common are financial matters, personal conduct, and foreign influence, RAND reports. Use of information technology is among the least common. That suggests such cases are either rarely disputed (which seems unlikely) or that investigators make few denials for digital activity.
Ours is a trust-but-verify system. The thin line between reasonable security and invasion of privacy is easily breached. The digital profile of gamers sharing screenshots and gaming advice is not so different from that same gamer leaking classified documents. The only way to tell the difference is to see exactly what is being posted.
This is the biggest difference between our free society and the oppressive regimes in Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. We draw a sharp line around personal freedoms; they summarily ignore them. Every member of the military swears to uphold and protect our Constitution, which not only spells out First Amendment freedoms—religious liberty, free speech, a free press, the right to assemble, and the right to petition our government for the redress of grievances—but also protects against unreasonable search and seizure and self-incrimination.
Military members effectively surrender some rights when they take their oaths, but not these.
Younger generations are more likely to have immigrant parents than their parents did or to have moved here themselves. They are more likely to have overseas contacts, more likely to have experimented with drug use, and are more open to unconventional relationships. They are less judging of homosexual and non-monogamous relationships.
Yet the biggest difference between the 1980s and today is the ubiquity of digital technology. For digital natives born in the 1990s and later, computers, social media, and digital sharing have always been there. What’s surprising in RAND’s observation that 88 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds use some form of social media is that the figure isn’t greater.
“We found … younger adults are the most active on social media and how much information they share online appears to be on the rise,” RAND reported. This generation is also relatively blasé about security, as evidenced by the vast popularity of apps like TikTok.
RAND recommended new guidelines to broadly address “the personal conduct that individuals may exhibit online,” including “the timing, frequency, and context of problematic conduct by clearance applicants.” That’s a start.
Efforts to require what might amount to digital strip-searches of every service member in exchange for clearance would violate the definition of unreasonable search and the nature of our system of trust. It’s on the government to verify and monitor that trust.
One of the prices of freedom is risk. By granting individuals some benefit of the doubt we uphold their human rights; to ensure compliance, violators must be held to account.
America must trust our young. The vast majority of those who raise their right hand honor their oath and deserve that trust. Those who don’t must be held accountable as an example to all.