Last month, we learned that top-secret military documents, which provided insight into Russian moves within Ukraine, were leaked on the internet — straining relationships with American allies and compromising our intelligence collection assets.
The culprit was not a foreign spy or ideology-driven digital warrior. It was a socially awkward airman first class in the Air National Guard with low self-esteem, attempting to show off for a group of teenage gamers on a chat platform.
The breach calls into question the standards the national security community applies in determining who gets top secret clearance. We must move beyond the current vice-based criteria that look for people who are vulnerable to blackmail, have a connection to “bad actors,” or have highly recognizable psychological issues. Loneliness, low self-esteem, and narcissism must be added to the list of red flags to look for.
This month, the surgeon general of the United States announced an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” affecting the country, and he laid out a framework for a “National Strategy to Advance Social Connection,” as part of a plan to mend the social fabric of our nation.
While the full impact of the mental health issues associated with pandemic isolation will not be fully understood for some time, a survey published by the National Institute of Mental Health identified that the prevalence rate for mental health illness — which includes mental, behavioral or emotional disorders — was highest among 18-25 year-olds.
Moreover, in the Air National Guard, where Jack Teixeira served, directors of psychological health across 90 wings reported 109,000 in-person encounters with service members and their families.
These revelations present us with several challenges, chief among them, calling into question how security clearances are vetted. According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which determines the eligibility for access to classified information, “a security clearance investigation is an inquiry into an individual’s loyalty, character, trustworthiness and reliability to ensure that he or she is eligible for access to national security information.”
Mental health issues raise concerns about eligibility because they may cause poor judgment or unreliable, untrustworthy, or dysfunctional behavior. Mental health will influence how a person perceives the world and makes their decisions. Because of this, there are lists of disqualifying conditions, indicators, and behaviors used to determine suitability for a security clearance.
Absent from these lists are loneliness, poor self-esteem, and social anxiety, narcissism which are the traits exhibited by Teixeira — as well as most mass shooters.
Clearly, there were red flags overlooked or missed by those who approved Jack Teixeira’s top-secret clearance, and it appears that a number of oversight responsibilities failed. The current FBI and DoD investigations will sort this out, this disgraced airman likely will go to jail for a long time and a number of people should and will lose their jobs.
Moving forward, however, there must be a comprehensive review of our current security vetting and monitoring. We must move past the legacy perception of people who represent a “security risk,” and develop new screening criteria that quickly identifies people who exhibit loneliness, poor self-esteem and grandiose narcissism (as displayed by Teixeira), remove them from access to classified information, and provide them with the support and tools to address these issues before they become toxic and make bad decisions.
Jack Hammond is a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General with multiple combat commands, and he currently serves as the chief executive for the Home Base National Center of Excellence for Mental Health and Brain Injuries.
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