U.S. airman Jack Teixeira is scheduled to appear in court on Friday following his arrest by the FBI for the “alleged unauthorized removal, retention and transmission of classified national defense information.” His arrest follows a week of speculation about leaked U.S. intelligence documents, which, among other things, revealed classified information on the war in Ukraine, including troop movements, battle plans, lethal aid shipments, and Russian leadership dynamics.
The unauthorized disclosure points to broader systemic failures in the safeguarding of U.S. intelligence information, as well as new insider threats that pose thorny legal and policy challenges. As intelligence and law enforcement leaders assess the damage, Congress should be asking tough questions to hold the executive branch accountable and prevent future leaks.
The New Insider Threat
The incident differs from previous high-profile leaks, such as Edward Snowden’s revelations or Chelsea Manning’s disclosures. Unlike those cases, Teixeira was apparently not a self-styled whistleblower. There is also no public indication that he was a foreign agent, although the intelligence he leaked eventually ended up in pro-Russian Telegram channels and much of it was a boost for Moscow.
According to Bellingcat and New York Times investigations, the intelligence documents initially were posted on the online gaming platform Discord before migrating elsewhere to Internet sites such as YouTube, image board 4Chan, Telegram, and Twitter. Teixeira shared photos of the intelligence documents in a private chatroom called Thug Shaker Central – a small group of mostly young men who bonded online during the pandemic over guns and racist memes – reportedly to “inform” his “friends” about government overreach.
This type of insider threat is likely to be more pervasive, and in some significant ways more dangerous, than traditional espionage. Counterintelligence measures, though imperfect, are in place to prevent foreign intelligence agencies from recruiting U.S. officials, such as through tracking the finances, travel, and foreign contacts of U.S. government employees. But it is far more challenging to root out potential insider threats with no external connections, where none of these drivers or red flags may be present.
While the Pentagon and law enforcement agencies recently have taken steps to counter extremism in their ranks – particularly in the wake of the January 6th attacks on the U.S. Capitol – domestic extremism within the U.S. Intelligence Community remains a growing and under-appreciated threat. There was no reference to this threat in the recent 40-page unclassified version of the 2023 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, which contained only a brief section on “transnational racial or ethnically motivated violent extremists.”
This insider threat is compounded by risks emanating from disinformation campaigns. That’s true for both inputs and outputs. In terms of inputs, anti-government extremist conspiracy theories may motivate more insiders to think they have a righteous cause. In terms of outputs, allegations that some aspects of the leaked intelligence documents were deliberately altered, for example, raises the prospect of more sophisticated disinformation operations based on partially correct intelligence.
Legal and Policy Challenges
The incident highlights a longstanding problem with how to monitor online gaming platforms, a less obvious medium for sharing intelligence which poses significant legal and policy challenges. These types of platforms allow potential leakers to “hide in plain sight,” complicating law enforcement efforts to identify them.
From a legal perspective, monitoring private online chatrooms raises a host of concerns about mass surveillance programs, potential privacy violations (notwithstanding reduced protections for national security officials), and intercepting U.S. communications. But these legal concerns are finely balanced against the need to improve investigations into domestic threats. The House Jan. 6 Committee previously concluded that the FBI and other agencies were “too cautious” in acting on information gleaned from social media due to exaggerated concerns about free speech.
The leak also poses policy challenges for the Biden administration, which has tried to downplay the seriousness of the revelations. On Thursday, President Joe Biden during a trip to Ireland said he was concerned the leak occurred, but that there was “nothing contemporaneous…of great consequence.” Even if that statement were perfectly accurate, there has been some political fallout from the revelations, which included intelligence collection on U.S. partners in Israel, the Gulf, and the Korean Peninsula. South Korean leaders, in particular, were outraged by the incident, accusing the United States of “violating the sovereignty” of a key ally.
The leaked documents have also decreased Kyiv’s confidence in their partners in Washington at a critical moment in the war, as Ukrainian troops prepare for a Spring offensive against Russia.
At home, the incident raises questions about potential systemic failures in the U.S. intelligence system more broadly, especially in light of revelations that both Biden and former President Trump mishandled classified documents.
Questions Congress and Senior Administration Officials Should Ask
Congress has an important role to play in identifying these systemic failures and preventing similar leaks in future. As intelligence and law enforcement leaders assess the scope of the damage, Congress should ask the following questions. Senior administration officials, with or without robust congressional oversight, should demand the same answers:
- Why did it take at least a month for the unauthorized disclosure to come to the attention of U.S. authorities?
- How does the administration plan to increase surveillance of online gaming platforms and chatrooms? What financial, personnel, and other resources are needed to do so?
- How will the administration balance surveillance of online gaming platforms with privacy concerns? What legal protections and procedures will be put in place to safeguard individual privacy rights?
- Should law enforcement authorities be allowed to access, read, and store communications from U.S. citizens to foreign members of private group chats?
- What is the procedure for conducting background checks of intelligence branches of the Air National Guard and are background checks equally rigorous for all U.S. Intelligence Community agencies? What is the procedure for conducting continuing checks after individuals have joined the government, and what improvements can be adopted to that system?
- Why was Teixeira able to obtain a security clearance and pass required background checks despite holding anti-government and discriminatory views? Did he undergo a psychological evaluation as part of routine background checks?
- How did Teixeira gain access to sensitive intelligence on Ukraine and other national security issues outside the scope of his normal duties? Did he have access to raw reporting in addition to finished intelligence products?
- Did Teixeira receive emails with intelligence roundups? How wide is the distribution list for such roundups?
- How was Teixeira able to take intelligence documents home?
- What steps does the administration plan to take to root out extremism within U.S. intelligence agencies and prevent similar disclosures in the future?
[Editor’s note: a previous version of this article indicated Teixeira photographed the documents at work. Initial evidence suggests he brought the documents home and uploaded photos of them to the online gaming platform].