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The intelligence community is doing damage control after the Pentagon leaks

MILES PARKS, HOST:

President Biden says he's directed the military and intelligence communities to take steps to further secure sensitive information. That's after a massive leak of sensitive documents came to light. On Friday, a 21-year-old member of the Air National Guard named Jack Teixeira appeared before a federal judge in Boston. He's facing charges that he leaked highly classified information that include details about Russian moves in Ukraine and the strength of the Ukrainian army. Joining us now to talk about all of this is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Miles.

PARKS: So what steps can the intelligence community even take after a breach like this?

BOWMAN: Well, the first thing, obviously, is to restrict access to who sees this kind of information. Now, there are at least several thousand people who have access to this classified information, which came out of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. Already, the Pentagon is removing people from this information. I was talking with some folks last night who lost that access, and they have high-level jobs. So that will continue. But as far as how many people they're restricting, we just don't know.

PARKS: And then, there's this bigger question - right? - of how did a 21-year-old IT specialist working at an air base in Cape Cod even get access to this highly classified information?

BOWMAN: That's what the investigation will determine, and neither the Pentagon nor the Justice Department is really saying much at all right now. I spoke with a retired senior officer who did have access to this kind of intelligence. He speculates that Teixeira likely gained access to something called the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, or JWICS. The Pentagon likes acronyms. That's a secure internet system that would contain all kinds of top-secret information. Now, that's how Chelsea Manning, the former Army soldier and whistleblower, convicted back in 2013 - that's how she was able to grab thousands of documents and release them.

Now, when that happened, the Pentagon and other agencies put a lot of controls over who had access, limiting them on a need-to-know basis. They created separate groups, also subgroups. So let's say, Miles, you're an intelligence analyst or an officer working on Taiwan issues. After that, you would not be able to have access to anything related to Ukraine. Or let's say you work the Ukraine issue. Maybe you could see some intel on Ukraine, but not the more sensitive information such as, you know, what's being picked up on Russian communications.

PARKS: Tell me a little bit more, Tom, about why this leak matters more broadly.

BOWMAN: Well, I'm told the big problem is - with release of these kinds of documents, these sensitive documents, is it alerts your adversaries. So the U.S. is picking up electronic communications, like phone calls or other information, from the Russians. That will all quickly dry up because they can change phone numbers, radio frequencies, do forensics on which information came from which command and which location. It makes it much harder to glean information from the Russians, a huge problem.

PARKS: NPR's Tom Bowman.

Thank you so much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.