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When ‘Top Secret’ Is Not So Secret

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The arrest of Jack Teixeira, a junior Massachusetts airman, in the leaking of classified documents opens a debate about security clearances.

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A police officer stands between two vehicles in the middle of a street.

Police blocking access to the street where Jack Teixeira’s mother lives. The Pentagon was reeling from the possibility that the leaker may have been far from the higher echelons of military intelligence.Credit…Alex Gagne for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Why would a 21-year-old national guardsman be in a position with access to top secret documents to begin with?

The dramatic arrest on Thursday of Jack Teixeira, an airman in an intelligence unit in the Massachusetts Air National Guard who federal authorities believe is linked to a leak of reams of classified documents, lays bare the sheer volume of people who have clearance to view a swath of national security documents that the government categorizes as top secret.

From National Guard members on bases in Massachusetts to generals at NATO headquarters in Brussels to American bureaucrats all over the world, the “top secret” level of clearance gives bearers an extraordinary level of access. With it, they can see secure Pentagon and other intelligence sites, daily intelligence briefings, situation maps and detailed analyses of the state of the world as seen through the eyes of the American intelligence community.

American service members with top-secret clearance include nearly all of the more than 600 or so generals in the various services. But that level of clearance also extends to some of their military aides, many colonels who work in the Pentagon, captains of Navy ships, a wide array of junior officers, and even, in the apparent case of Airman Teixeira, enlisted service members working in intelligence units.

Pentagon officials say the number of people with such access is in the thousands, if not tens of thousands. And just below them, those with “secret” clearance include nearly everyone else who works for the Pentagon or other national security agencies. There are military contractors and even analysts at think tanks who have some level of security clearance.

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Federal authorities arrested Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old Air National Guardsman, who they believe is linked to a trove of leaked classified U.S. intelligence documents.

The Pentagon will likely be dealing with the fallout from the leaking of scores of pages of sensitive material for months as, in the immediate term, Russian military planners pore over the leaked files for clues to their own compromised agencies. But the case raises broader questions about whether the term “top secret” is actually even secret, and whether national security agencies have allowed their sensitive material to drift too far afield.

“Clearly, too many people have access to too much top secret information” that they have no need to know, said Evelyn Farkas, the top Defense Department official for Russia and Ukraine during the Obama administration.

On Thursday, the Pentagon was reeling from the possibility that the leaker may have been far from the higher echelons of military intelligence and sensitive national security data.

Instead of finding the leaker in the offices of the Joint Staff, where senior generals and officials put together many of the documents that were posted to a small online gaming chat group called Thug Shaker Central, officials found themselves raiding the home of Airman Teixeira.

“Each of us signs a nondisclosure agreement — anybody that has a security clearance,” Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, said at a news conference. “So all indications are, again, this is a criminal act.”

The arrest of Airman Teixeira, Dr. Farkas said, serves as a warning for what awaits those who mistreat classified information.

“They’re going to throw everything at him,” she said, “and that’s going to make it more important for the government to take action against others who think that they’re immune because of their senior positions.”

A person convicted in such a leak could face extended prison time, officials said. Airman Teixeira was arrested under the Espionage Act, violations of which carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison per count. Reality Winner, a former Air Force airman and an N.S.A. contractor convicted of leaking a classified document to the news media, received a five-year, three-month sentence. A Navy engineer, Jonathan Toebbe, who tried but failed to sell secrets to a foreign country that were classified at a lower “confidential” level, received a 19-year prison sentence last year. His wife, Diana Toebbe, received nearly 22 years in prison.

“This was a major security breach that cannot be allowed to happen again,” Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “Anyone with a security clearance who betrays their country by purposefully mishandling classified documents or disclosing classified materials must be held accountable.”

Some military officials defended the practice of granting security clearances to service members regardless of their age; if someone is old enough to die for their country, they are old enough to be trusted with its secrets, they argued.

“When you join the military, depending on your position, you may require a security clearance,” General Ryder said. “And if you are working in the intelligence community, and you require a security clearance, you’re going to go through the proper vetting. We entrust our members with a lot of responsibility at a very early age.”

National security officials on Thursday said the episode underscored weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the clearance process despite changes made since the case of Edward J. Snowden, the former U.S. intelligence contractor who became one of the world’s most high-profile fugitives after he disclosed mass surveillance techniques to news organizations.

“Those reforms clearly weren’t effective enough,” said Javed Ali, a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who held intelligence roles at the F.B.I., the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

Bearers of “top secret” clearance have access to daily intelligence briefings, situation maps and detailed analyses by the American intelligence community.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

For instance, the top secret briefs are on government computers that reside in secure work areas known as SCIFs — Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities — where no one is allowed to bring in any electronic devices that could be used to take photographs or make video or audio recordings. Visitors to a slew of offices at the Pentagon must leave their cellphones, laptops and anything else that can be used to record or take photos in lockers in the hallway.

To limit intelligence breaches after the Snowden case, senior officials put into place regulations limiting people’s ability to electronically access material in SCIFs.

“The Snowden problem was preventing people from electronically siphoning out classified materials,” Mr. Ali said. “This person went the other direction, likely because of the post-Snowden measures.”

In this case, documents appear to have been printed out and removed from classified facilities, officials said, though much about how the materials ended up in the chat group is not yet known.

It was unclear on Thursday what level of clearance Airman Teixeira had. But he was detailed to the 102nd Intelligence Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, and it is possible that he had top secret clearance, one Defense official said on Thursday.

“There’s the obvious question of why someone in this relatively low rank and rather obscure corner of the military, namely the Massachusetts Air National Guard, could have access to not only some of the nation’s most critical secrets, but such an extraordinary array of them, which could have no possible bearing on his job,” said Glenn Gerstell, a former general counsel of the National Security Agency.

Mick Mulroy, a former C.I.A. officer and top Pentagon official, agreed: “This does bring up just how someone this junior would have access to some of our most sensitive intelligence and documents to brief our most senior officials,” he said. “This should give us pause as to who has access to this level of material and how and why we allow people to print such material.”

Jack Teixeira, an Air National Guardsman, in a photo posted on social media.

Two major changes in how intelligence was handled in the past helped set the stage for the most recent leaks.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, intelligence agencies began sharing material much more widely across the government. Then, after the failed intelligence assessment that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, intelligence agencies started sharing more about the sources of their information and their confidence in how reliable the material might be.

Mr. Gerstell said those changes were made for good reasons, but they have gone too far. Now access to some classified secrets is “just mind-numbingly broad,” he said.

We’ve gone so overboard and made it so convenient and easy for a wide range of people to have access precisely because we never want to be in a position of saying we could have prevented something, if only we had shared this information,” he said. “We have a principle of making information available only on a ‘need to know’ basis, but in practice we don’t really follow it.”

American intelligence agencies have strict guidelines about who can access information, but the military has adopted a looser set of rules, that in effect allow anyone with a security clearance to get access to documents from an array of spy agencies.

Mr. Gerstell said a “zero trust architecture is needed” for securing information. Under such a model, people could see the headline or title of a piece of intelligence but would need to have their credentials checked to view the details. That would allow better monitoring of who accesses information and how often.

Instead, under the current system, “once you’ve been cleared, you’re entitled to almost everything,” he said.

On Thursday, a few hours after Airman Teixeira was arrested, Kathleen Hicks, the deputy defense secretary, sent out a memorandum restating rules for handling classified material.

“Personnel with access to classified information are trusted stewards of that information and the responsibility to safeguard classified information is a lifetime requirement for each individual granted a security clearance,” she wrote.