The FBI on Thursday arrested 21-year-old National Guard Airman Jack Teixeira in connection with a massive leak of highly classified U.S. intelligence documents, while suspicions deepened that the leak may have become intertwined with a disinformation and influence operation run by a foreign adversary of the United States.
Heavily armed federal agents descended on the North Dighton home of Airman Teixeira in southeastern Massachusetts minutes before Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the airman, who is assigned to the Guard’s intelligence wing, will face federal charges of unauthorized removal of classified national defense information.
The case has proven both bizarre and deeply embarrassing for the U.S. government, apparently sparked when the junior airman began posting top-secret internal Pentagon and intelligence material to an internet chat room for war gamers he managed on a social media app. It took months for the leaks to even be noticed, but the repercussions have been felt worldwide, from the front lines of Ukraine to embassies across Europe and Asia.
“FBI agents took Teixeira into custody earlier this afternoon without incident,” Mr. Garland said at a press conference. “He will have an initial appearance at the U.S. District Court for the district of Massachusetts.” Officials said the arraignment could come as early as Friday in Boston.
The arrest provides a little clarity on the incident, but intelligence sources on Thursday stressed that there remain more questions than answers now surrounding the case, with some pointing to Russia as a potential behind-the-scenes actor that may have manipulated the documents, as well as the obscure, private online channel where they were circulated.
Investigators believe Airman Teixeira, who was arrested at the home he reportedly shares with his mother, led a small chat group on the online server Discord, where both summaries and photos of the documents were posted, according to people familiar with the investigation.
The documents, said to number in the hundreds, exposed intelligence assessments on the state of the Ukraine war, as well as alleged U.S. spying on allies such as South Korea and Israel.
The Discord server, dubbed “Thug Shaker Central,” reportedly included about 20 to 30 people, mostly young men and teenagers. They would indulge in discussions about video games, guns, and often racist memes.
The Air Force said Thursday that the suspect joined the Air National Guard in September 2019 and served in the Guard’s 102nd Intelligence Wing as a “cyber transport systems journeyman,” charged with keeping internet connections and communications systems working at air bases. The job requires the completion of a “single-scope background investigation” for personnel who need a top-secret security clearance for access to sensitive information.
The airman’s mother told reporters her son most recently had been assigned to work the night shift at Otis Air National Guard Base, part of Joint Base Cape Cod. According to the base’s website, the intelligence wing “provides world-wide precision intelligence and command and control along with trained and experienced Airmen for expeditionary combat support and homeland security.
Television news footage of the actuall arrest showed a young man with short dark hair in a t-shirt and red shorts, walking backwards toward a heavily armed group of camouflaged agents standing beside a large armored vehicle to be apprehended.
The 21-year-old airman appears to have started sharing classified government documents on that server late last year, although the documents seem to have gone widely unnoticed until recently. Discord has said it is cooperating with law enforcement as the investigation proceeds.
More questions than answers
The emergence of a 21-year-old National Guard airman as a primary suspect has triggered speculation in national security circles on how the highest-profile intelligence leak in years — one that continues to unfold with almost daily revelations of highly classified documents — could have been caused by such a young, relatively low-ranking service member.
It is unclear why Airman Teixeira would have had access to intelligence that included U.S. assessments not only of Ukrainian military operations, but also internal political conversations among South Koreans, Hungarians and others, as well as a range of other sensitive information that national security sources say would have been restricted on a need-to-know basis to high levels of the armed forces and intelligence community.
Other documents tied to the leak detailed a possible Egyptian weapons deal with Russia and a potential hack of a Canadian pipeline by Russian-based cyberintelligence agents. Another offered a detailed look at U.S. intelligence into alleged infighting in the Kremlin, including high-level resistance to President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Pentagon officials said Thursday that the military is reviewing its protocols in the wake of the case. Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the military will examine its rules surrounding access to sensitive information — though he stressed that alleged leakers broke laws and guidelines that were already in place.
“It is important to understand that we do have stringent guidelines in place for safeguarding classified and sensitive information,” Gen. Ryder said. “This was a deliberate criminal act, a violation of those guidelines.”
Although he would not confirm details about Airman Teixeira, Gen. Ryder said a junior service member could in fact have a high-security clearance. “We entrust our members with a lot of responsibility at a very early age,” the Pentagon spokesman said. “If you’re working in the intelligence community and you require a security clearance, you’re going to go through the proper vetting.”
Some of the material uploaded to Discord appear to have been images of physical documents, the likes of which are routinely used for daily briefings of military officials. That suggests the alleged leakers may have printed the documents and taken photos of them.
But specialists question how that was allowed to happen because such highly classified information is typically restricted to a “sensitive compartmented information facility,” or SCIF, as it is referred to in military and intelligence circles. Phones, cameras and other devices are not allowed in such areas.
“This sounds like the kind of stuff that’s normally in a SCIF. How does it get out of a SCIF? To me, that’s a big, open question,” said James Carafano, a national security scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“The fact this information can be stolen for weeks and months and nobody notices that, and somebody takes it out of a SCIF and nobody notices, there’s obviously some procedural stuff that needs to change,” he said in an interview.
Mr. Carafano added that the United States “looks like yahoos in front of our friends and allies” because of the breadth of information that has come into public view as a result of the leak.
Others are pointing to peculiarities with the case that suggest possible manipulation by a foreign adversary.
“Right now there are way more questions than answers,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Clandestine Service officer.
“Multiple things are going on here that don’t fit with each other — all of these documents together raises the question of whether more than one person was stealing them, or more than one person was influencing what specifically got put out there on this server,” he said.
“Was this a single malicious insider working on their own, or was it someone working for a foreign adversary knowingly or unknowingly?” asked Mr. Hoffman, who writes a regular column for The Washington Times. “There are aspects of what we’re seeing here that suggest a possible disinformation and influence operation.”
A Washington Post article published Thursday maintained that roughly half of about two dozen users of the online chat portal where the documents first appeared were located overseas, including from post-Soviet countries.
Given past disinformation and influence operations against the United States by Russian intelligence, Mr. Hoffman pointed to the possibility of Russian manipulation in the leak case.
“Imagine the Russians had an operative in that chat room posing online as someone they were not,” he said. “Did the Russians mastermind this from the beginning? Did they learn about it and play a manipulation role because their own hackers came across this while searching for potential assets on a gaming channel that may be able to penetrate U.S. intelligence?”
“For now these questions are speculation because there hasn’t been time to do full forensics on the leak,” Mr. Hoffman added.
“One conclusion that we can draw that is incontrovertible is that Russian President Vladimir Putin is enjoying watching this play out because it is exposing information that is being weaponized against the U.S.”
Russian officials asked about the leaks have issued a string of non-denial denials of any role in the operation, while openly enjoying the potential rift it could create between Washington and Kyiv.
“I cannot comment on this in any way,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow Monday. “You and I know that there is in fact a tendency to always blame everything on Russia. It is, in general, a disease.”
Biden downplays leak
President Biden attempted to play down the fallout from the leaks in his first public comments on the case Thursday, telling reporters that information that has come out so far was unlikely to pose grave damage to U.S. operations.
“I’m not concerned about the leak,” Mr. Biden told reporters while on a three-day trip to Ireland. “I’m concerned that it happened. But there’s nothing contemporaneous that I’m aware of that’s of great consequence.”
But the sheer scope of the documents Airman Teixeira allegedly had access to is vast, and some of the information already has sparked geopolitical fallout.
One document appeared to show that the U.S. gathered signals intelligence related to South Korea’s internal debate over weapons sales to the U.S., and Seoul’s fears that those weapons would ultimately end up in Ukraine. That document could drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul just as President Yoon Suk Yeol is preparing for a long-sought state visit to Washington later this month.
One paper contained apparent U.S. intelligence suggesting that Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, had encouraged its staff and Israeli citizens to join recent domestic protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reform plan. Israel rejected that claim.
Of most immediate concern could be documents related to Ukraine and its war effort. The documents reportedly include pessimistic assessments of Ukraine’s chances for success in its upcoming spring offensive, along with more tangible information such as the Ukrainian military’s “burn rate” of U.S.-supplied artillery and other equipment. Some of the leaked material wound up on pro-Russian sites and appeared to be altered to favor the Kremlin’s view of the war.