Jack Teixeira Pleads Guilty to Massive Leak of Pentagon Secrets

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The Massachusetts Air National Guardsman at the center of one of the most significant leaks of national-security documents in a decade pleaded guilty on Monday to posting dozens of highly classified intelligence records in an online chat group.

Jack Teixeira, 22, accepted a prison sentence of up to 16 years as part of his guilty plea to six counts of “willful retention and transmission of national defense information.” As part of the deal, the Justice Department will not pursue any further charges against him under the Espionage Act.

The revelations amounted to one of the most damaging disclosures of U.S. government documents in a decade, straining relations with U.S. allies and and triggering national embarrassment. The case also revealed glaring blind spots in the U.S. security-clearance process and added 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.

According to his plea agreement, Teixeira will have to participate in a debrief with officials at the Pentagon, the Justice Department, and intelligence agencies. He will also have to hand over any documents or other materials still in his possession. Compared to similar cases related to the mishandling of classified information, "this will be one of the longest sentences ever imposed," says Stephanie Siegmann, the former chief of the national security unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston.

"The secrets that he posted about were extraordinary," Siegmann tells TIME. "The disclosures could have revealed sources and methods, and our intelligence capabilities, to foreign adversaries...it could be a matter of life and death. It was stunning." 

Read More: The Strange Saga of Jack Teixeira Reveals New Security Challenges.

Teixeira, who worked as an IT specialist with the 102nd Intelligence Wing at Otis Air National Guard Base in Cape Cod, was arrested last April. He was charged with posting the trove of secret military documents in a small chat group called Thug Shaker Central on Discord. At the time, Teixeira pleaded not guilty. 

Photographs of the materials showed smoothed-out papers that were marked “SECRET/NOFORN,” meaning it is not meant to be shared with foreign countries. Others, which appeared to be briefing documents, had the seal of the Joint Chiefs’ intelligence arm. The documents, which included sensitive intelligence on the war in Ukraine, Chinese aircraft carriers, Iran’s nuclear program, and the killing of Islamic State terrorists, sat in the chat group for over a month before surfacing on social media and drawing the attention of U.S. officials.

Read More: The Mysteries of the Biggest Intel Leak in a Decade.

Unlike many leakers of classified information, Teixeira seemed driven by hubris rather than ideology. Discord messages in court filings indicate that he reveled in showing off his access to the online chat group, which was largely made up of teenagers. 

Teixeira’s security clearance process had turned up an incident from his sophomore year in high school, when he was suspended for alleged violent and racial threats, including comments about bringing guns and Molotov cocktails to school. Nevertheless, he received a top-secret clearance upon joining the Massachusetts Air National Guard. After the Discord leaks became public, federal investigators found that he continued to regularly post “about violence and murder” in online forums, asked for advice on how to turn an SUV into an “assassination van,” researched mass shootings, and amassed an “arsenal” of weapons in his home, according to a filing from prosecutors in April.

Read More: Why the U.S. Security-Clearance Process Has a Digital Blind Spot.

After an internal Air Force probe released its findings in December, 15 airmen were disciplined for “failing to take proper action after becoming aware of [Teixeira’s] intelligence-seeking activities. The review lays out several incidents where Teixeira’s superiors were aware of "questionable activity" but “intentionally failed to report the full details of these security concerns [and] incidents ... fearing security officials might 'overreact.'" Col. Sean Riley, the commander of Teixeira’s unit, was relieved of his command. However, the report “did not find evidence that members of Teixeira’s supervisory chain were aware of his alleged unauthorized disclosures.” 

After Teixeira’s arrest, the Pentagon conducted an internal review and took steps to tighten the way it controls access to national-security information. In July, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin released a memo outlining recommendations to restrict classified information and security clearances on a “need to know” basis.

"The fact that so many people were disciplined in the Air Force National Guard in relation to this case shows the message being sent by the military that we will not tolerate this type of behavior and you need to report it,” says Siegmann.“There were a number of warning signs.”

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com