The stunning arrest of 21-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira on charges of illegally sharing US intelligence has once again raised questions about the handling of classified documents.
Since the discovery ten years ago of top secret documents that have been leaked Edward Snowdenquestions about the vulnerability of the country’s most sensitive intelligence agency only intensified after several classified documents were found earlier this year in the possession of former US President Donald Trump at his home in Florida’s Mar-a-Lago.
Teixeira is accused the “alleged unauthorized removal, retention, and transmission of classified national defense information.” He has not yet pleaded the charges regarding the leaking of US intelligenceincluding documents about Russian efforts in Ukraine and spying on US allies.
Carry the burdens a maximum penalty to 15 years in prison.
Over the years, The Conversation US has published countless stories exploring the nature of classified documents — and how different motivations play into an individual’s decision to mishandle the country’s secrets. Here are selections from those articles.
What are Secret Documents?
Before coming to academia, Jeffrey Fields worked for many years as an analyst with both the State Department and the Department of Defense.
In general, Fields writes, classified information is “the kind of material that the U.S. government or any agency deems sensitive enough for national security that access to it should be controlled and restricted.”
Of the three classification levelsa “confidential” designation is the lowest and includes information the release of which could harm U.S. national security, Fields explained.
The next level is “secret” and refers to information the disclosure of which could cause “serious” damage to US national security.
The strongest designation is “top secret” and means that disclosure of the document could cause “extremely serious” damage to national security.
Read more: This is how government documents are classified to keep sensitive information safe
Violations of the Espionage Act
Ferguson and Durkin also urge patience before passing judgment on a case involving violations of the espionage law, in part because of the classified nature of the potential evidence and the risk that further exposure would pose to U.S. national security.
“The Espionage Act is a serious and politically charged matter,” they write. “These matters are controversial and complicated in a way that requires patience and caution before jumping to conclusions.”
Read more: You don’t have to be a spy to break the espionage law — and other crucial facts about the law Trump may have broken
How to fight future leaks
Cassandra Burke Robertson is a scholar of legal ethics who has studied ethical decision-making in the political sphere.
She points out that criminal prosecution alone may not be the only way to prevent the flow of classified information.
It all depends on one’s motivation.
In cases where the motive is unclear, Robertson suggests that a potential deterrent is to create a work environment that encourages employees to bring potential ethical and legal violations to an internal authority for review.
Known as internal whistleblower proceduresuch actions may prove effective in not only preventing classified information from reaching the public, but also embarrassing another national security.
Read more: When is a leak ethical?