WASHINGTON – A member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard was arrested on Thursday in connection with the disclosure of highly classified military documents about the Ukraine war and other top national security issues, an alarming breach that has raised new concerns about America’s ability to protect its most sensitive secrets.
The guardsman, identified as 21-year-old Jack Teixeira, was apprehended without violence as FBI agents descended on his Massachusetts residence. According to Attorney General Merrick Garland, he will be prosecuted with taking or disseminating secret national security material, which is a violation of the Espionage Act.
Garland did not specify a probable motive, but stories from others who participated in the online private chat room where the documents were revealed paint Teixeira as motivated more by bravado than ideology.
While Thursday’s arrest marked a watershed moment in the probe into the highest-profile intelligence leak in years, the military and Justice Department were still looking into how vital government secrets exchanged in a chat room wound up floating across the world. The identification of Teixeira as a major suspect is certain to raise questions about how such a significant breach, described by the Pentagon as a “very serious risk to national security,” could have been created by such a young, low-ranking service member.
“At a young age, we entrust our members with a great deal of responsibility.” Consider a young combat platoon sergeant and the responsibility and trust we place in those folks to lead troops into combat,” said Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder.
Teixeira worked as a “cyber transport systems specialist,” or an IT specialist in charge of military communications networks, including cabling and hubs. Teixeira would have had a higher level of security clearance in that capacity because he would have been responsible for network security, according to a defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive subjects.
Rep. Mike Turner, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, issued a statement hours after the arrest promising to “examine why this happened, why it went unnoticed for weeks, and how to prevent future leaks.”
Teixeira, who was wearing a T-shirt and shorts when heavily armed tactical agents apprehended him, is scheduled to appear in court in Massachusetts on Friday. In addition, he could face accusations in a military court.
It was unclear whether he had a lawyer who could speak for him, and a phone message left at a number thought to belong to his mother was not returned.
Since the leaks were first disclosed last week, the Biden administration has been scrambling to control the potential diplomatic and military ramifications, attempting to reassure friends and assess the magnitude of the damage. Officials at the Pentagon have expressed concern about the leak. President Joe Biden downplayed the findings’ long-term implications, telling reporters in Ireland early Thursday, “there’s nothing contemporaneous that I’m aware of that is of great consequence.”
The classified documents, which have not been individually authenticated by US officials, range from briefing slides outlining Ukrainian military positions to assessments of international support for Ukraine and other sensitive topics, such as whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would use nuclear weapons in certain circumstances.
There is no definitive answer as to how many documents were leaked. The Associated Press has reviewed about 50 documents, with some estimating that the overall number is in the hundreds.
The leak is thought to have begun on Discord, a social media network popular with those who play online games and where Teixeira is said to have posted for years about firearms, games, and his favorite memes — as well as tightly guarded US secrets, according to some speaking with him.
Teixeira was initially identified publicly by the investigative website Bellingcat and The New York Times, only minutes before federal investigators revealed he was a topic of interest in the inquiry. They reported tracing accounts on other, more obscure Teixeira-related websites.
A member of the internet discussion group described the leaker as “the O.G.” in prior Associated Press stories. The individual refused to reveal his identity to the Associated Press, claiming concerns for his personal safety.
The Thug Shaker Central chat group drew approximately two dozen aficionados who talked about their favorite sorts of guns and shared memes and jokes, some of which were racist. The group also had an ongoing war conversation, which included mention of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“the O.G.” would publish stuff that he said was classified for months in that discussion, initially typing it out with his own notations, then transitioning a few months ago to posting photographs of folded-up papers because he felt his writings weren’t being taken seriously, the person said.
Discord has stated that it is working with law enforcement.
In a statement made after the arrest, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the Pentagon would conduct a review of its “intelligence access, accountability, and control procedures” to prevent such a leak from happening again.
There are just a few ways the disclosed secret information may have been acquired. Typically, material is delivered electronically in classified briefings with slides like those posted on Discord. This can be accomplished via secure computer terminals to which people obtain access based on their credentials, or via tablets delivered for briefings and collected later.
If the slides must be printed, they must be routed to secure printers that can handle sensitive information and retain a digital record of everyone who has requested a printout.
Those with a security clearance handle sensitive material based primarily on training and trust that they will protect the information.
“When you join the military, depending on your position, you may require a security clearance,” Ryder explained. “And if you work in the intelligence community and need a security clearance, you’ll go through the proper vetting.”
According to Ryder, every service member who receives a clearance signs a non-disclosure agreement and is briefed on the military’s tight procedures for handling classified material. The leaks were described as “a deliberate criminal act, a violation of those guidelines.”