X Close

The real scandal behind the Pentagon leak America has forgotten how to take secrecy seriously

Jack Teixeira of the Massachusetts Air National Guard

Jack Teixeira of the Massachusetts Air National Guard


April 17, 2023   4 mins

A friend of mine landed himself in serious trouble after reading a Pentagon report on a plane: the passenger alongside him, another US Defense Department bureaucrat, reported him for reading a “classified” document in public. Yet like a great many such documents, it only had one page that contained classified information. In fact, it only included a single classified sentence, itself of trivial importance.

But, as a result, every page was stamped CLASSIFIED in capital letters, both above and below the text. In the end, my friend, despite the support of his colleagues and office chief, had no choice but to resign.

To this day, vast reams of pseudo-secret documents are manufactured whenever a Diplomatic, Consular or State Department official adds a comment to the lengthy daily media summaries produced by every US diplomatic post across the world. And if the comment is from a member of the local CIA station (perhaps to the effect that so-and-so is at it again with some anti-American comment), this trivial addition becomes “super-secret”, even though its contents are still 99.99% publicly available as an “open-source” material that all in the organisation can see.

Yet this daily output is only a mere rivulet when compared to the Amazonian flow of documents produced by the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, who are equally liberal in elevating trivia to “secret” or even “top-secret” status. But they are all outclassed by the Navy’s nuclear submariners, for whom even a toothpaste order is issued “for official use only”, and the US Special Operations Command — which used to be the Joint Special Operations Command, of which I was once the sole consultant — whose toothpaste purchase order are not just “official use” but “secret”, if not more.

Even with genuine secrets, such as the scope and limits of “overhead” (satellite) photography, there is habitual and extreme exaggeration. Long ago, an exceptionally competent National Security Council official and that rare thing, a genuine “country expert”, asked me to visit his office to discuss some phrases I had included in a report for the Defense Department. It contained not a jot of secret data, but was nevertheless stamped “for official use only”, the equivalent of “Airman 1st class” in the hierarchy of secrecy.

In deference to the rules, I kept no copy of my own at home, so he arranged for the document’s delivery from the Pentagon via official mail, and we sat down to discuss the phrases in question. It turned out they contained information that he believed was very, very important — he planned to take it to the President — and, to make his point, he impulsively whipped out another report that included a small black-and-white satellite photograph of very small rectangles (Russian tanks) on his country’s border.

There is a very good reason why satellite photography should be kept secret: by understanding exactly what appears and what remains unclear in any given image, vehicles, buildings and entire bases can be camouflaged to exploit the limitations of whatever lenses and cameras are being used. In showing me that photo, the distinguished official had just breached a strict security rule. He had theoretically “compromised” America’s use of contemporary satellite photography, even though the photograph was so small that it could not have been used to improve camouflage techniques even if carefully examined by experts. Nevertheless, once the official reported his own violation, he set off unending investigations that could have terminated his career had it not been for very firm presidential support — he eventually became an ambassador. Along the way, however, he discovered how many copies of the supposedly ultra-secret “code-word” documents had been printed and distributed to US facilities around the world: more than 1,000.

Thus, all the way upstream from the latest leaked-document embarrassment in the Pentagon, here is the real scandal: the mindless mass production and very wide distribution of supposedly secret and relatively few seriously secret documents, whose oceanic abundance makes it impossible to treat secrecy seriously by restricting access to those who actually need to know the information.

Even if need-to-know criterion is very broadly interpreted to include all who just might, perhaps, one day, need the information, it would still exclude a very junior airman in a clerical job in the Massachusetts Air National Guard. It would also exclude the likes of Edward Snowden, who was merely the employee of a contractor that efficiently extracts vast sums from the public purse by employing hordes of ex-officials and retired officers, whose very presence signals to serving officials where to award contracts if they want to supplement their pensions with post-retirement jobs or consultation fees. And because contractors are always trying to add something — anything — to their vast output of worthless “reports”, they eagerly add classified bits, thereby adding to the abundance of supposedly secret documents.

Secrets of real importance do exist, of course — most obviously in wartime, when a surprise action can yield the ultimate advantage in battle. But that is only so if secrecy is indeed preserved. When it is not, as was the case on February 24, 2022, when Russia’s elite Airborne Assault troopers were ambushed and failed to seize the Antonov airfield just outside Kyiv, it can quickly backfire. Even now, more than a year later, the Russians have yet to overcome their failure to keep their plan secret.

In peacetime, the greatest number of genuine secrets are technological, and therefore in the possession of engineers and the like, who are, by nature, less loquacious than policy officials. Besides, their secrets cannot be whispered or casually emailed, but only transferred in encrypted bulk data packages. The secret documents disseminated by Jack Teixeira, by contrast, were “policy papers” — that is, the observations of sundry officials on the Ukraine war that incidentally cited bits of intelligence data, whose best use for the Russians is not for intelligence purposes but for propaganda: the documents, for instance, seem to have been altered to exaggerate the number of Ukrainian casualties, while understating the number of Russian losses, and not very cleverly given the wildly improbable low numbers.

It would be nice to think that the Massachusetts Air National Guard out there in Cape Cod — the cold-water Riviera of the American elite — was included in the distribution list, perhaps along with the Coast Guard’s Antarctic patrol ship in a contemporary version of Churchill’s “bodyguard of lies”, which relies on the sheer gigantic mass of pseudo-secret documents instead of double-agent deception to hide true secrets.

Alas, that is a vain hope. But after the ravages of Teixeira, the time has come to finally enforce “need-to-know” rules that would immediately and very drastically limit the number of readers of any given document. This in turn should generate counter-pressure against the bureaucratic malpractices that fuel the production of unnecessary classified documents — many of which deserve to be stamped “Unread” and returned to the sender.


Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.

ELuttwak

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

19 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago

I thought the government lying their asses off again to the public was the real scandal.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Ha! That would only be the case if a particular man with an orange complexion were still in office.

Jeff Hansen
Jeff Hansen
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Spot on. All the coverage is about there being a leak. If this were back in the days of the Pentagon Papers the Washington Post would be asking how the government will crack down on Daniel Ellsberg.

Warren Trees
WT
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Ha! That would only be the case if a particular man with an orange complexion were still in office.

Jeff Hansen
JH
Jeff Hansen
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Spot on. All the coverage is about there being a leak. If this were back in the days of the Pentagon Papers the Washington Post would be asking how the government will crack down on Daniel Ellsberg.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago

I thought the government lying their asses off again to the public was the real scandal.

Benjamin Greco
Benjamin Greco
1 year ago

It is astonishing that no one in the MSM is asking why the extent of the United States’ and Nato’s involvement in the proxy war in Ukraine is a secret in the first place. Citizens in a democracy have the right to know how much we are arming, training and planning the war for the Ukrainian military. At some point in the quest for clicks and likes journalists have forgotten their role in a democratic society and have become mouthpieces for the ruling elites. They learned nothing from Bush’s war and are making all the same mistakes with Biden’s war.

Benjamin Greco
Benjamin Greco
1 year ago

It is astonishing that no one in the MSM is asking why the extent of the United States’ and Nato’s involvement in the proxy war in Ukraine is a secret in the first place. Citizens in a democracy have the right to know how much we are arming, training and planning the war for the Ukrainian military. At some point in the quest for clicks and likes journalists have forgotten their role in a democratic society and have become mouthpieces for the ruling elites. They learned nothing from Bush’s war and are making all the same mistakes with Biden’s war.

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 year ago

I fail to understand how someone was able to read a secret document on a plane.
That one action involves a multitude of security violations.

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
1 year ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Classified is probably the lowest security classification, similar ro ‘Restricted’ in Britain. Even blank pages can be resricted in a publication and if lost can result in court martial. Training manuals are restricted, even drill manuals and how to fire a weapon.

Last edited 1 year ago by Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
1 year ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Classified is probably the lowest security classification, similar ro ‘Restricted’ in Britain. Even blank pages can be resricted in a publication and if lost can result in court martial. Training manuals are restricted, even drill manuals and how to fire a weapon.

Last edited 1 year ago by Mark Phillips
William Shaw
William Shaw
1 year ago

I fail to understand how someone was able to read a secret document on a plane.
That one action involves a multitude of security violations.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 year ago

I can recall dealing with reports that were numbered and individually accounted for – actual security. Any document available electronically is subject to easy duplication and distribution. The ability to print from an electronic file was how the airman removed the document to his house.
The contents were opinions of people at the time but then revealed the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of intelligence sources. Those who actually know the real data can gain much from the leak. The leak also can reveal the effectiveness of Russian propaganda in influencing US assessments. Doubtful that the airman even understood how much might be revealed in the leak.
As fodder for the pro/con-Ukraine support forces, the leak has created even more trouble.

Hardee Hodges
HH
Hardee Hodges
1 year ago

I can recall dealing with reports that were numbered and individually accounted for – actual security. Any document available electronically is subject to easy duplication and distribution. The ability to print from an electronic file was how the airman removed the document to his house.
The contents were opinions of people at the time but then revealed the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of intelligence sources. Those who actually know the real data can gain much from the leak. The leak also can reveal the effectiveness of Russian propaganda in influencing US assessments. Doubtful that the airman even understood how much might be revealed in the leak.
As fodder for the pro/con-Ukraine support forces, the leak has created even more trouble.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
1 year ago

The article points to a real problem
Overclassification creates an excessive administrative burden. This makes compliance a huge and pointless task, that is treated with contempt. Same happens in the corporate world..
And then, an actual TopSecret document was hnded to the public
Maybe there should be more classifications, such as
internal (do not publish to external people and do not publish online, but nothing very secret and you can brag about it with your friends)
secret
top secret (with audited logs of who read the document and why)
But then, the egos of so many Pentagon pper pushers would be bruised.

Last edited 1 year ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
Dominic A
Dominic A
1 year ago

I am quite sure there are many more categories, and that ‘Top Secret’ is a misdirection/misnomer. Actually it is a fairly low category of secret which 1,250,000 Americans have access to. Really, were there any surprises revealed in the recent leak? It was ‘chicken-feed’.

Dominic A
Dominic A
1 year ago

I am quite sure there are many more categories, and that ‘Top Secret’ is a misdirection/misnomer. Actually it is a fairly low category of secret which 1,250,000 Americans have access to. Really, were there any surprises revealed in the recent leak? It was ‘chicken-feed’.

Emmanuel MARTIN
EM
Emmanuel MARTIN
1 year ago

The article points to a real problem
Overclassification creates an excessive administrative burden. This makes compliance a huge and pointless task, that is treated with contempt. Same happens in the corporate world..
And then, an actual TopSecret document was hnded to the public
Maybe there should be more classifications, such as
internal (do not publish to external people and do not publish online, but nothing very secret and you can brag about it with your friends)
secret
top secret (with audited logs of who read the document and why)
But then, the egos of so many Pentagon pper pushers would be bruised.

Last edited 1 year ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
B Davis
B Davis
1 year ago

The problem, primarily, is ego….complicated and amplified by Bureaucracy.
The more important I am (must be!) the more Top Secret…Special Top Secret….and of course Dean Wormer’s Double Secret Probation Super Top Secret stuff I generate.
If I am Ultimately Important (so important that you can’t even think about me without getting the CIA involved) then everything I do and say is Super Duper Secret Classified….and no one can see it, not even me.
As a result, THREE things happen — all entirely predictable: 1) everyone stops caring about ‘secret stuff’ because everything is secret stuff meaning nothing is really secret stuff…. and 2) being able to demonstrate that I have access to secret stuff (which most probably is entirely mundane stuff) is the best & fastest way to demonstrate exactly how important/cool I really am. The third thing — the most dangerous thing: actual, real confidential material..material which can significantly impact our national security is dealt with in the same loosey-goosey, amateurish, adolescent manner as everything else because no one really cares until it’s too late.
In such a world, filled with an escalating & vicious mediocrity, what is truly important is easily lost (or easily exposed) as idiots with no real understanding act increasingly like cartoons. We see Young Jack and we expect to find a skateboard tucked beneath his arm…not 10,000 national secrets, casually shared in on-line gaming chat rooms.
Stupid, pathetic, and tragic all at once. You’d like to send him to the principal’s office for losing his homework once too often. Instead, we’ll probably, justly, send him to spend a decade or two in a Federal Pen for endangering the nation. Ridiculous and idiotic, all at once.

B Davis
B Davis
1 year ago

The problem, primarily, is ego….complicated and amplified by Bureaucracy.
The more important I am (must be!) the more Top Secret…Special Top Secret….and of course Dean Wormer’s Double Secret Probation Super Top Secret stuff I generate.
If I am Ultimately Important (so important that you can’t even think about me without getting the CIA involved) then everything I do and say is Super Duper Secret Classified….and no one can see it, not even me.
As a result, THREE things happen — all entirely predictable: 1) everyone stops caring about ‘secret stuff’ because everything is secret stuff meaning nothing is really secret stuff…. and 2) being able to demonstrate that I have access to secret stuff (which most probably is entirely mundane stuff) is the best & fastest way to demonstrate exactly how important/cool I really am. The third thing — the most dangerous thing: actual, real confidential material..material which can significantly impact our national security is dealt with in the same loosey-goosey, amateurish, adolescent manner as everything else because no one really cares until it’s too late.
In such a world, filled with an escalating & vicious mediocrity, what is truly important is easily lost (or easily exposed) as idiots with no real understanding act increasingly like cartoons. We see Young Jack and we expect to find a skateboard tucked beneath his arm…not 10,000 national secrets, casually shared in on-line gaming chat rooms.
Stupid, pathetic, and tragic all at once. You’d like to send him to the principal’s office for losing his homework once too often. Instead, we’ll probably, justly, send him to spend a decade or two in a Federal Pen for endangering the nation. Ridiculous and idiotic, all at once.

TheElephant InTheRoom
TheElephant InTheRoom
1 year ago

The real secrets of the depth of US involvement in Ukraine will never be leaked.

TheElephant InTheRoom
TI
TheElephant InTheRoom
1 year ago

The real secrets of the depth of US involvement in Ukraine will never be leaked.

Emery Roe
Emery Roe
1 year ago

Just like Luttwak to be a breadth of fresh air.

Emery Roe
Emery Roe
1 year ago

Just like Luttwak to be a breadth of fresh air.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

There was a time, not so long ago, when the US used to electrocute spies. Perhaps they should do so again “to encourage the others*”.

(*V.)

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
1 year ago

Ethel Rosenberg wasn’t even guilty. She merely declined to give evidence against her husband Julius: so they plugged her in too. Yes, the Prosecution ‘made an example of’ her alright.
So much for ‘liberty and justice for all’ and the Constitutional ban on ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. What would you expect of the warmongering barbarians who ran secret rendition and torture centres everywhere from Thailand to Poland and an offshore torture-gulag in Gitmo? And with ‘Honour Bound to Defend Freedum’ emblazoned the gate, like a USSA tribute to ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’.

Last edited 1 year ago by Peter Joy
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

I am no fan of the US, but yes Ethel was guilty.
It just suited the left to reinvent her as a martyr

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

True enough, but someone HAD to die to keep up with the narrative, that ‘Commies’ had leaked the secrets of the BOMB! To the Soviet Union.

Like all good conspiracies some of that was true, however I also suspect that the CIA or whoever, surreptitiously made sure the Soviets really did get the Bomb. In fact it was axiomatic that they got it, otherwise the so called Cold War would hardly have been credible would it?

A rather similar story with the fabled Space Race, although really that was Adolph’s Sputnik in 1957.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

I do hope that last bit about the gates of Gitmo is true

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

I am no fan of the US, but yes Ethel was guilty.
It just suited the left to reinvent her as a martyr

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

True enough, but someone HAD to die to keep up with the narrative, that ‘Commies’ had leaked the secrets of the BOMB! To the Soviet Union.

Like all good conspiracies some of that was true, however I also suspect that the CIA or whoever, surreptitiously made sure the Soviets really did get the Bomb. In fact it was axiomatic that they got it, otherwise the so called Cold War would hardly have been credible would it?

A rather similar story with the fabled Space Race, although really that was Adolph’s Sputnik in 1957.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

I do hope that last bit about the gates of Gitmo is true

Jeff Hansen
Jeff Hansen
1 year ago

Exactly. Daniel Ellsberg should have been electrocuted for exposing government lies in the Pentagon Papers. The United States isn’t killing nearly enough people in my lifetime.

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
1 year ago

Ethel Rosenberg wasn’t even guilty. She merely declined to give evidence against her husband Julius: so they plugged her in too. Yes, the Prosecution ‘made an example of’ her alright.
So much for ‘liberty and justice for all’ and the Constitutional ban on ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. What would you expect of the warmongering barbarians who ran secret rendition and torture centres everywhere from Thailand to Poland and an offshore torture-gulag in Gitmo? And with ‘Honour Bound to Defend Freedum’ emblazoned the gate, like a USSA tribute to ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’.

Last edited 1 year ago by Peter Joy
Jeff Hansen
JH
Jeff Hansen
1 year ago

Exactly. Daniel Ellsberg should have been electrocuted for exposing government lies in the Pentagon Papers. The United States isn’t killing nearly enough people in my lifetime.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

There was a time, not so long ago, when the US used to electrocute spies. Perhaps they should do so again “to encourage the others*”.

(*V.)

patrick macaskie
patrick macaskie
1 year ago

I don’t buy the motive in this case. Surely he was part of the lunatic fringe that believes Putin is their friend in the war against the liberal left..

patrick macaskie
patrick macaskie
1 year ago

I don’t buy the motive in this case. Surely he was part of the lunatic fringe that believes Putin is their friend in the war against the liberal left..