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Amid a leak, the Pentagon is reviewing the way classified data is distributed

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A 21-year-old National Guardsman accused of leaking top-secret intelligence documents appears in court again today.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Pentagon, meanwhile, is reviewing the way classified information is distributed. And people are asking why such a junior member of the military had access to such sensitive material.

MARTÍNEZ: And that's what we're going to ask NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, the old adage about military secrets is that they're shared on a need-to-know basis. You know, my uncle used to love saying that. He's a Marine. So why would this junior airman, Jack Teixeira, need to know?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, A, after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, need to know became need to share. The belief was the government, the military and intelligence agencies weren't doing enough sharing. They were hoarding their own intelligence, and no one was connecting the dots. So we've seen this huge expansion of the national security system. Homeland Security was created. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence was established, and it oversees all 18 intelligence agencies now.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So then is the U.S. getting its money's worth? I mean, is the country getting better intelligence?

MYRE: Well, of course, this leak was very embarrassing. And the Pentagon is in damage-control mode right now. But these documents do show how thoroughly U.S. intelligence has penetrated Russia's military communications network. The U.S. has consistently provided Ukraine with this detailed, up-to-date information on Russian military plans, which is a huge benefit to Ukraine on the battlefield. And I spoke about this with Thomas Rid. He's a cyber expert and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

THOMAS RID: One of the conclusions, clearly, is the U.S. intelligence community, especially those parts of the intelligence community that produce technical intelligence, signals intelligence, are really delivering the goods.

MYRE: Now, he says, Russia will try to change the way it communicates based on what it's learned from these documents. But the Russians knew the Americans had penetrated their networks from the very beginning of the war, and they haven't been able to fix this problem over the past year.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So it sounds like the U.S. is gathering very good intel, but does this leak then show that maybe too many people have access to it?

MYRE: Yeah. There's around 3 million Americans who have security clearances, including more than a million with top-secret clearance. And one of them was Teixeira. He was essentially an IT worker. He kept the computers humming along. So he needed access to these computers, but not to the content of these documents. And several high-profile leaks over the past decades have often involved 20-somethings with this kind of access. And Thomas Rid said this isn't an easy problem for the government to fix.

RID: Young people, meaning staffers and lower-ranking officers, they often produce that information. They are the analysts. They are the worker bees. So I don't think we can just say young people shouldn't have access. That would be too shortsighted.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. But 20-year-olds love to share everything about their lives, Greg. So are we maybe likely to see a return to the old way of doing business, back to need to know?

MYRE: Well, we're already seeing some changes. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a review of the handling of classified documents. The place where the accused leaker Jack Teixeira worked, the 102nd Intelligence Wing at Otis Air Force National Guard Base on Cape Cod, is no longer performing its intelligence mission. That's been assigned to another part of the Air Force.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks.

MYRE: Sure thing, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.