Last week, the U.S. government arrested a man accused of one the worst leaks of national security material in years.
Who is the culprit?
He’s not exactly Edward Snowden.
According to federal prosecutors, the person responsible for leaking sensitive Pentagon material was none other than Jack Teixeira, a fresh-faced 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. Despite his youth, Teixiera was given a clearance to handle “Top Secret” compartmented information, a responsibility federal officials say he abused to illegitimately access and share classified documents with friends on Discord.
From a certain angle, the Teixeira case is only the latest iteration of a longstanding problem that the federal government has never quite figured out how to solve. Indeed, ever since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, whistleblowers and leakers have been a major national security concern. It’s arguable that there hasn’t been an incident of this sort for awhile—not since the early Trump years, when Wikileaks was still disclosing reams of classified documents from agencies like the CIA and NSA.
But there are obvious differences between the Wikileaks situation and this one. For one thing, the material in that case was distributed by a highly organized hacktivist group that was operating in close coordination with government insiders, namely Chelsea Manning. It was also an ideologically-driven project. Julian Assange, the group’s head honcho, was stalwart in what he saw as a mission to expose the U.S. government’s secrets—and its crimes.
That’s a far cry from this case—in which a 21-year-old kid appears to have been messing around online and leaked information that could inadvertently sway a war in Europe. Teixeira hasn’t shared any material that indicates an ideological reason for sharing this material—he wasn’t trying to warn the public about a nefarious surveillance program, nor was he divulging previously unknown government corruption. Instead, according to officials, the young airman was simply trying to impress a bunch of fellow Discord users with his government bona fides.
Who is Jack Teixeira, and what did he allegedly do?
At the time of the leaks, Teixeira was stationed at Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod, where he served as a “cyber transport systems journeyman.” At the same time that he worked as an IT operator, however, the 21-year-old also secretly ran an online Discord community, comically known as “Thug Shaker Central.” The group was reportedly a cess pool for juvenile and offensive rhetoric, as well as a forum for talking about guns. It is in this closed online chat group where Teixeira is said to have shared troves of classified documents with other members of the group—many of whom were teenagers.
What was in those documents? You should recall that the leaks revealed a broad array of sensitive government secrets. Some of the documents are purported to have involved U.S. and NATO “war plans” related to the Russo-Ukrainian war. Others appear to have revealed sensitive information about U.S. spying activities aimed at both friendly and adversarial nations alike.
The motive for Teixeira to leak the docs has been chalked up to a juvenile desire to impress the other members of the group.
How Teixeira became a suspect in the Pentagon’s leaks
Even the way in which Teixeira was initially identified as a suspect is highly unusual. The FBI doesn’t appear to have been the first organization to track down Teixeira—at least not publicly.
Instead, The New York Times teamed up with Bellingcat, the open source intelligence (OSINT) research organization, to decipher who might be responsible for the leaks. In an investigation published on April 9th, Bellingcat revealed that a trail of digital clues had led them to identify a slew of Discord communities where the classified material was originally shared. Bellingcat’s investigation showed that the material had trickled into those communities via a since deleted Discord group, “Thug Shaker Central”—the admin of which, we now know, was Teixeira. From there, the documents were spread to other websites, including 4chan, Telegram, and Twitter, before ultimately grabbing the attention of the government and the press.
The Times, meanwhile, claims that its digital investigators were able to use open source investigation techniques to identify a match between the granite countertop in the background of some of the leak images and the countertop in an online picture of Teixeira standing in his parents’ kitchen. (????) If true, that’s some serious Sherlock Holmes-level shit.
Meanwhile, the FBI’s criminal affidavit against Teixeira—which was unsealed on Friday—provides additional details about how investigators uncovered his identity. Interestingly, it shows that major developments in the government’s case didn’t occur until after the press investigations were published.
On April 10th, a day after the Bellingcat and the Times went to press with their reports, the FBI interviewed a member of the relevant Discord group, the recently unsealed affidavit states. Through that interview, agents discovered that Teixeira had been posting material on the platform since as early as December of 2022. He initially posted the information as “paragraphs of text”—meaning he was copying it from the original documents. However, in January, he began posting pictures of the documents. The affidavit notes that the unauthorized disclosure of this information could reasonably “be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security” of the country.
That potential “damage” is why Teixeira was arrested last week and why he could spend as many as 15 years in prison.
Key question: How the heck did this happen?
This story inspires a lot of questions, but one of the most pressing is whether the Defense Department is run by a bunch of bozos who don’t mind sharing highly sensitive data with someone obviously too young to handle it.
Seriously, how exactly does something like this happen?
Nicholas Grossman, a professor of International Relations at the University of Illinois, told Gizmodo that while the idea that Teixeira had access to this information may seem bizarre, it’s not out of the question. In a direct message, Grossman noted that “while the whole thing sounds stupid” it was also, unfortunately, “plausible.”
“Assuming it’s true, I don’t know why he had access to this info, or whether he was supposed to,” he added. “But he probably shouldn’t have.”
Grossman characterized the episode as a “serious intelligence failure,” noting that there are still things we don’t know about the situation. “This guy was taking classified material and sharing it online—with people who didn’t have security clearance, could’ve been hiding their identity, and possibly weren’t American—for months without the US catching it until some of his internet friends put the stuff on Discord.” In short: the whole situation is a giant mess.
How much access did Teixeira have to sensitive documents?
News of Teixeira’s alleged role in the leaks has spurred a broader conversation about weaknesses in government secrecy. Indeed, some 1.2 million Americans are said to hold “Top Secret” security clearances, just like Teixeira did. Doesn’t that really seem like way too many people?
Jeffrey Fields, an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California, said that some of the information that Teixeira is accused of leaking—the information labeled “Secret”—would have been easy to access even if he had a low-level security clearance. “It’s not surprising,” said Fields, though he admitted it was surprising what Teixeira had done with the material. Fields is in a position to know about this because, prior to his academic career, he worked in both the Pentagon and the State Department as a defense analyst. A lot of classified material can be found in government databases that are freely available to low level staff, he said.
Fields recalls having personally used SIPRnet (short for Secure Internet Router Protocol Network), a system of servers run by the Pentagon and the State Department that can be used to search for and read about classified material up to the level of “Secret” information. “Say you wanted to know something about the political situation in Angola,” said Fields. “You can just open up a browser window [in SIPRnet] as you would if you were searching the open source internet” and run a search that will tell you about what’s happening in that country, he said. “There’s also sorts of Wikipedia-like things that will help you with stuff like that.”
Some of the documents that Teixeira leaked were at the level of “Secret,” although others were decidedly more important—including a number that labeled “Top Secret.” That makes the situation a little more complicated. Fields said it’s somewhat unclear why Teixeir—even if he had a clearance to view certain documents—would have had access to them. “Just because he had the clearance doesn’t mean he had a need-to-know, doesn’t mean he had access to do that,” Fields said, which makes it something of an open question as to how and why he would have gotten ahold of certain material.
It’s been reported that it was Teixeira’s role as an IT technician that allowed him access to sensitive classified information, although the details as to how that would have technically worked have not been spelled out at this time.