Moments before his arrest by armed FBI agents on Thursday, a helicopter from a local news station caught footage of 21-year-old Jack Teixeira reading a book on the sun-splashed back porch of his house in North Dighton, Mass. In his front yard, meanwhile, FBI agents in camouflage tactical gear were climbing out of an armored vehicle, tightening the straps of their bullet-proof vests and gripping long guns.
The dramatic scene playing out in a sleepy, riverside exurb underscored the peculiarity of a case that exposed military documents, complicated relations with U.S. allies, and triggered national embarrassment. Intelligence leaks of this magnitude in the past have been the result of an alienated whistle-blower, double agent or successful spy operation. Now arguably the most damaging disclosure of U.S. government documents in a decade may have stemmed from the hubris of a junior enlisted member in the Massachusetts Air National Guard who shared them in a small online chat group called Thug Shaker Central.
In recent days, reports have surfaced that the suspected leaker wanted to show off his access to classified intelligence to the members of the Discord group largely composed of teenagers. On Thursday, Teixeira was charged with the alleged unauthorized removal, retention and transmission of classified national defense information, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a brief statement at the Justice Department on Thursday. “FBI agents took Teixeira into custody earlier this afternoon without incident,” he said.
Two long-standing national security issues converged to create this surreal saga. The first is the government’s fight to control access to classified intelligence in the nation’s sprawling military apparatus. The second is law enforcement’s struggle to monitor potentially illegal activities on fringe online platforms and Internet subcultures the U.S. government may have little visibility on.
The challenges presented by widespread access to classified intelligence have long been recognized by experts inside the government and out. “The threat that this has now exacerbated was a known threat,” says Mark Zaid, an attorney who practices national security law. “It’s not new that there are too many people who have access to classified information, and even once you have authorized access, you have access to too much data that you don’t have a need to know. The question is, what are we doing about it?”
The guardsman the government alleges is tied to the leak is equally familiar. The portrait emerging of Teixeira resembles that of many of the young men who congregate in the far-flung online spaces where right-wing youth culture has taken root with often devastating consequences. According to reports, Teixeira appears to have reveled in leading a small community where young men, many of them teenagers, gathered to talk guns and religion, swap racist memes, discuss world events, and express anti-government sentiments marked by references to Waco and Ruby Ridge. Teixeira seemed to seek the attention of his online acolytes, posting classified documents in order to “keep them in the loop,” according to one of the members of the group who spoke to the Washington Post.
Hundreds of pages of these classified U.S. intelligence documents sat on Discord chat servers for more than a month before one of the teenage members of the group posted them to more mainstream public platforms, from where the media and eventually the U.S. government seemed to become aware of them. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was first briefed on the leaks on April 6, according to the Pentagon, the same day their existence was first reported by the New York Times and a day after the documents began circulating on mainstream social platforms. The Pentagon referred the matter to the Justice Department, which opened a formal criminal probe last week. Defense and State Department officials are still assessing the damage that may have been wrought by the leak.
Before Teixeira’s arrest, national security officials told TIME they expected the perpetrator to be caught quickly. The leaker hadn’t been careful, haphazardly photographing documents that had clearly been folded and smoothed out on a desk containing several objects, including a hunting magazine, a bottle of glue, and nail clippers. Some documents reviewed by TIME also contained date and time stamps in the corners, likely making it easier to identify when and how they had been printed, because the government logs who opens or prints digital documents
It remains unclear how Teixeira, a junior enlisted National Guard member, would have access to such sensitive classified material. Teixiera works as a cyber transport systems journeymen, which entails repairing communication systems, according to his military records released by the National Guard. He’s stationed with the 102nd Intelligence Wing, headquartered at Otis Air National Guard Base located on Cape Cod. Since enlisting in September 2019, he has only received a single award, the Air Force Achievement Medal, in his more than three years in service.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday said he was considering “additional measures necessary to safeguard our nation’s secrets,” and had ordered a review of “our intelligence access, accountability and control procedures within the Department to inform our efforts to prevent this kind of incident from happening again.” The Joint Staff, which is composed of the top uniformed members of the six military branches, began whittling down their email distribution lists shortly after slides appeared online last week, bearing the mark of their intelligence directorate, a senior defense official tells TIME. The revamped distribution lists now involve individuals who “need-to-know,” rather than “would-like-to-know.”
The leak may also add new urgency to the ongoing debate over the screening of online profiles of military service members and government officials for potential problematic affiliations and activities. People who raise obvious red flags “shouldn’t be in the U.S. government having access to classified information, plain and simple,” says Zaid. “The question is, how do we identify those people?”
The leak has also put a spotlight on the lack of law-enforcement visibility into platforms like Discord. Payton Gendron, the teenager who pleaded guilty to killing 10 shoppers in a Buffalo supermarket last year, openly shared on Discord how he planned to target black people in a live-streamed attack for months before he carried it out. Users on many of these platforms tend to be young: the average age of members on servers that researchers found to engage with right-wing ideologies, when determinable, was 15, according to a 2021 analysis by the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a nonprofit that analyzes online extremism.
Asked if the Pentagon had been in contact with Discord, a spokesman referred questions to the company. In a statement, a Discord spokesperson told TIME that the company was cooperating with law enforcement.
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