This developing story has been updated as of 15:45 EDT.
Airman 1st Class Jack Teixeira will remain in federal custody until a hearing next week, following a court appearance on Friday.
He was charged with unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material, and unauthorized retention and transmission of national defense information, according to court documents.
Discord billing records helped the FBI track down the 21-year-old Massachusetts Air Guardsman as the source of the massive Pentagon intelligence leak that has rocked the Defense Department since it was first revealed April 7.
The case has raises questions about how, despite several high-profile leaking investigations over the past two decades, the intelligence community is still trying to find the right level of vetting and surveillance to ensure those with access to national security secrets can be trusted to safeguard them.
“The issue with social media boils down to privacy and civil liberties issues, First Amendment issues,” Larry Pfeiffer, a National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency alum who now directs the Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University in Arlington, Va., told Military Times on Friday.
“I guarantee you as much as you have people crying and screaming that we’re not doing enough review of social media, if we do more, the next thing you’re going to hear is we’re violating everybody’s freedoms going into their internet activity,” he added.
The FBI’s case broke open on Monday, according to court records, when agents interviewed a user of the Discord server Thug Shaker Central, where Teixeira was known as “the OG” and de facto leader. According to the user, Teixeira first posted classified materials in December 2022, transcribing text from documents. Then in January, he began uploading photos of the documents.
Discord provided billing records for Teixeira’s username, jackthedripper, to the FBI on Wednesday, including a home address where he was detained on Thursday.
Though the Justice Department is taking the lead on Teixeira’s case, the National Guard confirmed on Friday that he was on federal active duty at the time he was posting classified information online, subjecting him to the military criminal justice system as well.
He has been mobilized since Oct. 1, 2021, spokesman Rob Carver told Military Times on Friday.
A cyber transport systems journeyman, essentially an information technology technician, Teixeira held a Top Secret-Sensitive Compartmented Information, according to court records.
Teixeira’s clearance is “commensurate” with the type of sensitive information that could be on the networks he maintained, a defense official told Military Times on Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
His unit, the 102nd Intelligence Support Squadron, takes “information from various sources ... they are in the background, they’re interpreting that information and they’re fusing that into products that are useful to combatant commanders,” the official said, which can include assessments of the war in Ukraine, which were leaked on the Discord server.
The official “would not dispute” the possibility that Teixeira was not on a distribution list for the classified documents he allegedly obtained, but that he would have the proper permissions to seek them out.
Following Teixeira’s arrest on Thursday, the Pentagon released a memo, reminding employees about the rules for handling classified information.
“Do not access or download documents with classified markings from unclassified websites ― either from home or work ― as the data may be classified, it may be associated with hostile foreign elements, or it may contain malicious code or embedded capabilities that could introduce cyber threats into our information systems,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks wrote.
Hicks also reminded employees that classified information posted online is still classified, and their possession or sharing of it is still illegal.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday directed Ronald Moultrie, the Pentagon’s intelligence and security chief, to review the department’s “intelligence access, accountability and control procedures.”
“I want to thank the men and women of the Department’s Disclosures Task Force who have been working around the clock to assess and mitigate any damage done by these disclosures,” he said in a statement. “As Secretary of Defense, I will also not hesitate to take any additional measures necessary to safeguard our nation’s secrets.
The Pentagon is reviewing classified material distribution lists to make sure everyone on them truly has a need to know the information.
“We continue to review a variety of factors as it relates to safeguarding classified materials,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters. “This includes examining and updating distribution lists, assessing how and where intelligence products are shared, and a variety of other steps.”
Ryder would not comment on whether DoD is combing through Discord or other online forums looking for classified material, referring questions on the investigation to the Justice Department.
“While we are still determining the validity of those documents, I have directed our military and intelligence community to take steps to further secure and limit distribution of sensitive information, and our national security team is closely coordinating with our partners and allies,” President Joe Biden said in a statement Friday.
Aside from handling of classified materials, DoD also has a strict social media policy that requires service members to put a lengthy disclaimer in their bios to distance their opinions from those of DoD.
Teixeira, according to members of his Discord server who spoke to the Washington Post, was open about his military service but didn’t give specific details.
Though the Pentagon is reviewing policies, Ryder emphasized that the leak was a purposeful flouting of those rules.
“I would say though, that it is important to understand that we do have stringent guidelines in place for safeguarding classified and sensitive information,” he said. “This was a deliberate criminal act, a violation of those guidelines.”
Asked why such a junior member would have access to such sensitive documents, Ryder tried to offer some perspective.
“When you join the military, depending on your position, you may require a security clearance,” he said. “And if you are working in the intelligence community, and you require security clearance, you’re going to go through the proper vetting. We entrust our members with a lot of responsibility at a very early age.”
Preventing a next time
Most of that security vetting is done on the front end, intelligence community veteran Pfeiffer told Military Times, and doesn’t necessarily closely follow a clearance holder throughout their career, nor into every corner of the internet.
So while public Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other accounts with names attached will get a review, private chat rooms ― like a Discord server ― or anonymous accounts on Reddit or 4Chan are much harder to scrub through.
“Where the community has not done as good a job is that continuous adjudication of a person over time,” Pfeiffer said.
That is now changing, with the Pentagon’s roll-out of a continuous vetting program in late 2021, which now does regular background checks on clearance holders, rather than the previous standard of once a decade.
But just as private online forums aren’t easily accessible for background vetting, Pfeiffer pointed out, they’re not part of any intelligence or security agency’s regular sweeps, meaning classified information posted there can go unnoticed until it’s reposted to more public sites, as happened in this case.
As the consensus is that Teixeira’s alleged leaking was done purposely and knowingly in violation of federal law, Pfeiffer emphasized that assuring the integrity of clearance holders is probably the best way to prevent another leak.
“IT people, to me, are people that have to have the greatest amount of trust, because they have access to ― they have the keys to the kingdom,” Pfeiffer said. “They can find there were times when they could even find your passwords and change your passwords for you and you know, all those things.”
At the White House, for example, the Yankee White program requires an even more extensive background investigation than a top secret clearance.
Or it may be as simple as printer access.
While Teixeira allegedly transcribed written documents and posted the text online at first, photos of leaked documents eventually made it online as well.
“You see ole Jack running to the printer a lot more than anybody else is running to the printer all of a sudden,” he said. “You know, if you’re a supervisor: what is Jack doing at the printer? What’s going on here?”
After the Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden cases, the intelligence community did put in place safeguards to track who was printing what at the office, which is how authorities were able to quickly catch NSA contractor Reality Winner in 2018.
Perhaps there should be an approval process to print in a unit that handles classified information, Pfeiffer suggested. There is similar policy in place for putting files on thumb drives, he said, requiring secondary approval.
“If you’re going to print that, you need to go to a printer that somebody else controls and you need to kind of explain to them why you’re printing this stuff out,” he said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.