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April 14, 2023

So far, the press munchkins are reacting to our latest classified document compromise with wails and the usual platitudes, "How Could This Happen?” As a former investigator in the Army equivalent of the FBI, I have a far more cynical point of view: How Could It Not?

Since the primary objective of any compromise investigation is to determine responsibility, it makes sense to begin at the top, where President Biden's record on national security is so badly flawed that the only good reason for keeping him in office is his hapless Vice President. Apart from Mr. Biden’s personal malfeasance in keeping a tranche of classified docs in his garage, his other debacles have already become legendary. The notorious Chinese spy balloon(s); is merely the most recent, our Beijing adversaries allowed to perform leisurely figure 8’s over our most sensitive nuclear installations. More news keeps leaking out about how badly Mr. Biden performed during the Afghanistan withdrawal, despite a recently released “after-action report” attempting to whitewash the disaster. Most damning of all is Mr.Biden’s ongoing border crisis, the organized surrender of our homeland to the Mexican drug cartels; their most recent “clients” include Chinese nationals of military age who departed on their next missions without any visible impediments.

None of these matters presumably came up Thursday afternoon, when that 20-something Air National Guardsman was arrested by an FBI Swat team and hustled off in an armored vehicle. Neither should you expect government prosecutors to concede that President Biden bears the greatest ongoing responsibility for the country’s declining national security fortunes. Instead, they will present a highly structured case: That the young man held a security clearance based on an extensive background investigation; that he had been trained about the responsibilities of holding a security clearance and may even have signed a non-disclosure agreement about the sensitive materials entrusted to him. Yet none of that, they will argue, deterred him from sharing our most sensitive intelligence in an unguarded chat-room, where almost anyone could have seen it. Many apparently did so, including friends, enemies and in-betweens, all gaining a new appreciation for US intelligence sources and methods: What worked, what did not and with what effects? Any prosecutor worth his or her salt will not fail to point out that some valuable US sources – meaning human beings with families and loved ones – may be killed or compromised, simply because this young man treated intelligence as a fun chatroom exercise for his personal aggrandizement or enjoyment.

The hapless airman thus joins the dubious ranks of such Obama-era personalities as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Each for his own reasons, these junior intelligence operatives exploited their highly privileged positions (NSA and Army intelligence in Iraq respectively) to leak treasure troves of intelligence documents of incalculable value to our adversaries. Both were granted wide-ranging access because of their expertise with the electronic systems that provide the infrastructure of modern intelligence. Snowden revealed highly classified NSA programs that he considered unethical, taking refuge in Hong Kong before seeking asylum in Putin’s Russia, where his ethical sensitivities were presumably less troubled. Tried by court-martial, Manning served seven years at Fort Leavenworth before having her sentence commuted by Barack Obama, shortly before the inauguration of Donald Trump.

So what have we learned from these repeated legacies of compromise? Can our vaunted intelligence infrastructure even survive the cumulative effects of so many conspicuous failures? As a young intelligence officer, I learned that the most critical information you possess and hope to protect is best measured by two variables: Placement and access. A generation after 911, our canonical failure of information-sharing and lack of imagination has been overcome by over-reach, sharing too much information with too many people. Seldom do we even wonder if all those people really need to know that information!

I also learned to appreciate Ben Franklin’s wisdom when he wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanac that, “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” Modern intelligence depends upon a well-ordered system of personnel security, i.e., extensive background investigations to determine one’s suitability, ideally backed up by periodic re-investigations and the aggressive use of the polygraph. But personnel security systems fail when they are overwhelmed by bureaucratic inertia or hidebound by political correctness. How else can you explain why a junior airman was granted such extraordinary access yet lacked the character to police himself?

After a lifetime in that field, I find it difficult to believe that this was his first big mistake!

NOTE: Colonel Allard is the author of Command, Control and the Common Defense, winner of the 1991 National Security Book Award. After leaving active duty, he became an on-air military analyst for the networks of NBC News.


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