The Pentagon leaks have presented a major challenge to the US intelligence community. The leaks contain two tranches of classified documents including operational briefs from the US Joint Staff.
The documents began circulating on social media and the encrypted messaging service Telegram. They covered briefings on the Russia-Ukraine war, foreign intelligence assessments on matters concerning North Korea, Iran and China, and international bodies including the United Nations.
The alleged leaker of the information, Massachusetts Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, is alleged to have photographed printouts of the briefings and before sharing them on Discord, an instant messaging platform. Mr Teixeira has been arrested by US authorities.
The USSC's Director of Emerging Technology, Dr Miah Hammond-Errey, discusses the implications of the Pentagon leaks for the broader intelligence community.
What are some of the broader intelligence challenges that the Pentagon leaks reflect?
One of the challenges of the digital era is keeping intelligence secret — a necessity for aspects of intelligence work. Unauthorised disclosures of intelligence show that traditional methods of protecting intelligence are not as effective in a world of data abundance, digital connectivity and ubiquitous technology. Intelligence historians will note many examples but the technology of the day usually saw single or small batches of transmissions to a limited audience, not entire data sets to a global audience such as in this instance.
In the face of such challenges, there is still a need to maintain some of the most important national security secrets. It’s important to give greater consideration to ensuring the protection of intelligence capabilities (including collection methods, sources of intelligence, data, and intelligence assessments). However, equally, this must be balanced with increased transparency for accountability and communication to key stakeholders and declassification for non-government stakeholders. The nature of the digital era makes it important to ensure ongoing, rather than fixed-term, assessment of the suitability of clearance holders to access information.
Why are digital technologies so disruptive to intelligence?
Technologies are fast-changing intelligence work. Research I published recently shows how data abundance, digital connectivity and ubiquitous technology are challenging some of the principles and practices that have traditionally been central to the work of intelligence agencies.
For example, digitisation and big data analysis directly challenge the intelligence approach to information collection, storage and analysis. The intelligence approach of compartmentalising information is counter to the needs of big data analysis — where insights are derived by analytics across data sets that are as large as possible. As the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review noted, “the very nature of holding and connecting large digital data sets directly challenges the practice of compartmentalising information and increases the risks and consequences of security breaches.”
Dr Hammond-Errey is Director of Emerging Technology at the USSC, and creator of the Technology and Security (TS) Podcast.