Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

How Did Air National Guard Leaker Jack Teixiera Get a Security Clearance?

Like any human-powered attempt to predict the future, granting security clearance is a flawed process.

(Keith J Finks/Shutterstock)

Air National Guard leaker Jack Teixeira had one of the highest levels of security clearance. Why did we think we could trust him? Over five million Americans hold some type of security clearance. Can we trust them? Is Teixeira an exception, or is a process driven by human decision-making never expected to work one hundred percent of the time?

Departments and agencies within the American government issue security clearances to say that the holder can be trusted to handle sensitive materials and duties. This may mean someone can work as a janitor in Navy Yard without undergoing a body search every time he shows up to work; at the other end of the spectrum, it may mean access to secret weapons specifications.


There are three basic levels of clearance: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret, which are further filled out by Special Access Programs (SAP) that require specific permission to access just that single project, such as a clandestine operation or the identities of members of a particular spy network. Top Secret is supplemented by Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (SCI), often used to denote information obtained by clandestine methods. The higher the clearance, the more harm disclosure would make, and the more we need to trust a person to avoid that.

The clearance process is largely little more than an informed guess: What do we think a person will do in the future based on his prior life? But no one can really predict the future; past performance does not guarantee future success. What you have here is a very shaky foundation on which to base something as serious as the security of the United States.

Most everyone seeking a clearance begins with Standard Form 86, Questionnaire for National Security Positions—a very detailed autobiography, 129 pages of questions covering everything from family vacations to the birthdays of distant relatives. Some interesting perjury bait is near the end, “Have you ever engaged in an act of terrorism?” and a follow-up requiring a description, in one line, of “The nature and reason for the terror activity.”

After a hundred pages of names and dates are the instant disqualifications—the questions for nixing those who are unlikely to get very far. Do you have financial problems or debts? Do you drink or use drugs? Do you gamble? Any mental health problems? Legal problems? Ever been fired? Most applicants tell the truth and disqualify themselves. Assuming you get through the questionnaire without an instant DQ, databases and electronic records are queried to verify the self-provided data and find any easy disqualifications.

Various intelligence files (a National Agency Check) are also queried to make sure that, while you're applying for a job at the Department of Energy, the NSA hasn’t decided you’re on a secret list of bad guys. For some low-level or short-term clearances, that can be the end of the process; a decision is made, and that’s that. Times vary, but this sort of clearance is usually processed in a few months.


For higher clearances, including Teixeira’s Top Secret, the investigation goes much deeper. An investigator visits old teachers, old bosses, neighbors, relatives, and almost certainly his local police force. The Mother of All Waivers, signed voluntarily by the applicant, gives the government permission to do all this as intrusively as the government sees fit. If an applicant ever lived outside the U.S., American embassies get involved. This whole process is pricey. Such an investigation can run $15,000–20,000.

For a guy like Teixeira, a probable additional step in the clearance process is the polygraph. The federal government uses “the box” on about 70,000 clearance candidates a year. The basics are simple; even Mythbusters looked into it. The process is based on the belief that changes in blood pressure, pulse, breathing, and perspiration rate can show the stress of lying—although some say the box is mostly just a prop for clever interrogators using standard, old-fashioned, purely non-technological techniques.

This is all just a lead-up for one thing: adjudication. There is the basic problem in the clearance process: Adjudication is rooted in fallible human judgment.

The basics of an adjudication look at vulnerabilities uncovered by the background research. People betray their country's trust for MICE; Money, Ideology, Compromise (usually sexual), and/or Ego. Gamblers and debtors are prone to bribes. Ideology is a big problem in the government’s recruitment of language experts. Will an American-born Chinese speaker harbor a soft spot for the old People’s Republic where grandma still lives? After six years since Russiagate brought the term “kompromat” into the vernacular, you get the idea behind “compromise.” Teixeira seems to have been an ego case: His desire to show off among fellow gamers and nerds online led him to disclose more and more classified material. Ego is also often used to describe whistleblowers and “whistleblowers.”

Judging someone to be a good candidate for a clearance used to be easier—the Foreign Service was a family affair, schools funneled students into the CIA, and no one thought much outside the old boy network. Need fluent Farsi speakers? Network engineers? You’ll need to look beyond the male, pale, and Yale.

Agencies want to fill their positions. LGBT people, hyphenated Americans, or scraggly high school graduates in the Air National Guard, all of whom might never have gotten past step two in the process in the old days, are now routinely approved out of need. That's how Jack Teixeira (Ed Snowden, Chelsea Manning, et al) ended up with a flawed Top Secret security clearance.


Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here