Editor’s Note: Brett Bruen is the president of the crisis communications agency the Global Situation Room, Inc and teaches crisis communications at Georgetown University. He was the director of global engagement in the Obama White House and an American diplomat in Ivory Coast, Venezuela, Iraq and Madagascar. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Oops … we did it again. The US national security team is once more ignominiously living out the line made famous by pop star Britney Spears after finding itself back in the uncomfortable position of watching state secrets ping-pong around the internet. As a veteran of the National Security Council and State Department, I have a couple of ideas about what we need to change to get Spears’ song off repeat.
We don’t have all the details yet about how and which highly classified Pentagon intelligence reports found their way to social media this time. But the FBI on Thursday arrested a Massachusetts Air National Guard member who allegedly ran a social media group where the information was posted. Officials familiar with the situation have told CNN that the leaked documents appear to be part of a daily intelligence briefing prepared for top Pentagon leaders.
The Pentagon has already started taking steps to limit the number of people who have access to such sensitive information. But much more can be done. Beyond this particular case and its apparent origins with a member of a reserve unit in the military, another vulnerability looms. Why do so many people, especially those working short stints in government, have access to information that can shape the fate of nations and their leaders?
Many times before, it’s been contract workers responsible for significant leaks. Whatever other steps are taken, the Biden administration must not miss the opportunity to close this loophole as well and shut the revolving door of access to our most sensitive secrets.
Twenty years ago, the War on Terror led to a massive expansion in the use of contractors in sensitive positions across our government, from translators to intelligence analysts. We needed to rapidly ramp up our response to the terrorist threat and staff operations across two battle zones, and it was faster and easier in many cases to hire contractors than to seek congressional approval for permanent national security positions.
But now, too much of our intelligence, defense and diplomatic structure relies on people who are essentially temps. The Office of the Secretary of Defense alone has over 4,000 contractors. Unfortunately, onboarding new career officials can take years. The State Department, which the Biden administration pledged to rebuild after being degraded under President Donald Trump, has only seen its staff grow incrementally.
It’s time for us to both right-size and rethink the role of contractors, some of whom, based on my experience, can have access to way too much highly classified intelligence, including the Pentagon’s daily briefing. Unfortunately, as we have painfully learned from past transgressions, including the well-known case of National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked a sensitive surveillance program to the media, and the less well-known case of Shapour Moinian, who just last year pleaded guilty to selling secrets to the Chinese, contractors’ sense of duty and dedication can be lacking.
As an American diplomat, I managed and at times had to mitigate many of the difficulties presented by a large contract staff. Too often, they had a short-term focus and were motivated by money, not mission. I saw the Provincial Reconstruction Team I served on at Contingency Operating Base Speicher outside of Tikrit, Iraq, plagued by problems with contractors underperforming, overbilling and creating serious security situations by straining ties with our Iraqi counterparts.
To be sure, most contractors do make critical contributions to our national security mission. They add technical skills, perform logistical tasks that are not good uses of career officials’ time and fill gaps from staff shortages. And the speed and convenience in hiring make it easier to get some things done. But the sheer volume of contractors used has left some of our most sensitive programs and intelligence extraordinarily and unnecessarily exposed.
What really needs to change is access to so much classified material. For contractors specifically, a new standard should be instituted that limits their access to the highest level of intelligence to exceptional circumstances – and only then when an agency head approves it.
This administrative action could cost the government some money by forcing it to hire more permanent employees for roles requiring that level of information. But it would be worth it to massively reduce our vulnerabilities. It could also help restore the confidence of allies in our ability to safeguard what they share with us.
But beyond contractors, there are other short-time workers who contribute to the problem. And they sit at the top of the organization. When President Joe Biden came into office, he promised to elevate experience and empower career officials. That did not happen. Instead, the upper ranks of the Defense and State Departments, along with the National Security Council, were packed with political appointees and other non-Foreign Service staff. This is particularly dangerous following the institutional destruction and devastation left by the Trump administration.
Political appointees often avoid tackling really tough bureaucratic challenges like the overreliance on contractors. After all, they seldom stick around long enough (in many cases less than two years) to understand the classification system, let alone do anything to improve how it operates. And even if they get how it works, it can take too much time beyond that to address such systematic issues. Systemic changes also often trigger institutional resistance, and political appointees might not have the deep relationships and institutional knowledge to get changes made in the first place. Finally, there are few incentives or rewards on offer for those who achieve an important administrative advance.
While Oval Office holders are unlikely to stop handing out jobs to political allies, Biden can still make improvements. For starters, there should be a minimum time commitment from those appointed to high political office. I’ve seen too many posts on my LinkedIn over the last year from Biden appointees hailing the few months they spent in their positions before moving on. This turnover creates massive disruptions and gaps in our national security structure.
The next change ought to be in appointees’ job descriptions, with each one required to make at least three substantive security improvements developed by their team during their tenure.
We won’t ever completely secure our secrets, and we will always need some contractors. However, there are a number of fairly easy and effective steps that Biden and his team can take now. Don’t wait for a long review. Don’t blame the last administration, as it did with the after-action report on Afghanistan. Don’t expect the next person to deal with it.
Biden came into office promising to rebuild and restore confidence in our beleaguered national security bureaucracy. He can and must do more, before we once again are playing Spears’ hit track.
This piece has been updated to reflect the latest news.