TSG IntelBrief: A Large and Leaky U.S. Intelligence Community
April 20, 2017

A Large and Leaky U.S. Intelligence Community


Bottom Line Up Front:

• On April 19, CBS News reported that the FBI and CIA were investigating the possibility that a CIA officer or contractor leaked damaging materials to Wikileaks.

• The recent release of highly classified cyber-espionage tools and reports was just the latest disclosure from what has become a vast and leak-prone intelligence community.

• By outsourcing components of national security and intelligence matters to contractors, the U.S. is relying far too much on the vetting procedures of private companies.

• Given the sheer number of individuals with access to classified information and databases—both within government and among private contractors—the proliferation of leaks is unlikely to subside any time soon.


The U.S. intelligence community’s growing vulnerability to leaks of classified information is a well-known but unresolved issue that has serious national security implications. The issue has become even more pressing given that Wikileaks—the most prominent and self-promoting of ‘anti-privacy organizations’—was just described by CIA Director Mike Pompeo as “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.” Throughout the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Wikileaks played an open and obvious role in attempting to tilt public opinion through repeated releases of hacked emails and communications of only one of the two major political parties. Since the election, Wikileaks has continued to help fuel preexisting fringe conspiracy theories regarding the existence of a ‘Deep State’—a secretive separate government that is unaccountable to the citizens. Such conspiracies—which lack even the slightest plausibility—are often fed by leaks of sensitive information that is both real and classified. 

The U.S. faces several challenges as it relates to preventing and lessening these leaks, which can be very damaging to U.S. interests and its relationships with other countries. After the March 2017 release of CIA cyber-espionage tools by Wikileaks, General Michael Hayden—a former director of both the NSA and CIA—argued that ‘millennials’ presented a counterintelligence challenge due to what he called their different understanding “of the words loyalty, secrecy and transparency.” While such a generalization probably does not reflect the reality of those who join agencies such as the CIA or FBI, others, it does point to two very relevant concerns: the sheer size of the U.S. intelligence community, and the outsourcing of so much of the intelligence community’s national security work—including the vetting process. These two concerns are deeply intertwined and directly contribute to the overall issue of the growing potential and reality of damaging leaks.

The U.S. intelligence community, which is made up of 16 separate intelligence agencies and organizations of varying sizes and missions, has become a large and leaky ship. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the intelligence community experienced an overhaul that included massive growth. That growth far exceeded the existing protocols and procedures for vetting new hires and reinvestigating current employees. Though the intelligence community has had its share of high-profile traitors and spies, overall, the cumbersome and extremely selective vetting and hiring processes have historically served their function well. Today, however, many agencies outsource various parts of the vetting process to private firms with bottom-line driven procedures. As the numbers of people brought into the intelligence community—whether as federal government employees or contractors—have increased exponentially, the background processes have buckled under the dual weight of private firms performing public-sector work and the volume of case files to process.

The problem has been made far worse with the growing number of people with access to highly classified databases. Though over-classification has long been an issue for the U.S. government, recent leaks have demonstrated that the current problems stem not from the level of classification of information, but rather from the sheer number of people who are able to access it. Thus, when attempting to identify the culprit involved in a leak of classified information, counterintelligence investigators are no longer confronted with the challenge of finding a single needle in a haystack, but rather the exponentially greater challenge of identifying the correct needle in a haystack full of them. The sheer number of people with clearances and access to information is simply too great for existing mechanisms to effectively monitor, deter, and detect breaches. As such, public releases of classified information with serious U.S. national security implications are likely to remain a problem for the foreseeable future.


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