The High-Stakes Scramble to Stop Classified Leaks

Lawmakers remain perplexed over how all these classified documents keep getting out, in part because, at the Capitol, sensitive documents are kept under lock, armed guard, and key. Beyond that, many fear the culture around classified documents is too lax throughout the executive branch.

From 2009 to 2013, Don Beyer served as ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, where he took extraordinary measures to protect classified documents. “I made a rule that, mostly, I would actually go to our base office and have them talk to me about it. Or if they came to my office with it, you stand right there while I read it. I never want it on my desk,” Beyer says of classified material. “There’s never a phone in that office. Every phone was left outside. In every office in our building, you had to leave your cell phone outside.”  

Now that he’s a Democratic representative from Virginia, Beyer is also wondering what role overclassification is playing in all these high-stakes blunders. “When you classify so much stuff, more people have the clearances in order to be able to do their job,” Beyer says. “So if you could rationalize it, maybe you can shrink the number of people who need a clearance.” 

The ‘Need-to-Share’ Era

Even as US officials and lawmakers are focused on keeping American secrets, well, secret, others are warning against overreacting. Information flies these days.

“It’s a problem. We’ve got to figure out a better system, obviously, going forward. But you’ve got to balance that against the need for people to have access to information as well,” says Representative Mike Gallagher, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the new House select committee on China. “I think it’s just an increasing trend in the 21st century, which is, we’re going to have to move from this kind of need-to-know culture to a need-to-share in the government and with our allies.”

Disinformation, as this most recent leak of classified documents showcases, flies too. Versions of the sensitive files Teixeira allegedly shared with his buddies on Discord were later posted on pro-Russian Telegram channels, but they’d been crudely altered to make Russia look better and Ukraine look worse.

“Some of them have been doctored. Some adjusted, I’m sure, by the defendant himself, so assessing what the potential damage is and how to prevent that from occurring will be an ongoing process,” says Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican.

Technological fixes can only go so far. Plus, for the time being, there’s always a human at the other end—and there’s no AI fix for human nature, at least not yet.

“I think the fundamental dilemma remains, which is that, ultimately, when you give someone a top-secret clearance, you’re placing an enormous amount of trust in that person. It’s hard to design software—or a policy—to fix the problem of human beings doing bad things,” Gallagher says. “So there’s some level of risk just built into the system that I think it’s impossible to be reduced to zero. It’s not obvious to me right yet what the right fix is. We’re trying to figure that out.”