Portrait of a Troubled Loner-Leaker
Jack Teixeira and "The Discord Leaks" get a close-up on PBS Frontline tonight
There’s a lot of hand wringing around Washington these days over renewing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act, which authorizes U.S. intelligence to dial into the communications of perceived national security threats to the United States. One guy who evidently never had to worry about snooping overreach, ironically, was 21-year-old Jack Teixeira, the Air Force computer techie who’s been charged with illegally downloading hundreds of above Top Secret Pentagon documents from his desk at a base in Cape Cod and sharing them for months with his online gaming pals before one of them called the FBI.
The Teixeira saga gets full frontal treatment tonight on PBS’s admirable Frontline documentary series. Produced in partnership with The Washington Post, “The Discord Leaks” is based principally on the reporting of The Post’s Shane Harris and Samuel Oakford, who published a head-shaking two-part series on the Teixeira case in the paper starting Monday.
I’d long been astonished by several aspects of the case since it broke last summer, starting with the fact that: “In the secure facility where he worked at Otis Air National Guard base, in the 102nd Intelligence Wing, Teixeira had access to the Defense Department’s Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communication System, or JWICS, where he could read thousands of classified documents on nearly every imaginable topic,” according to The Post.
This was Jack the IT guy, whose duty on the lobster shift was merely to “ensure the Heating, Ventilation and Air Condition (HVAC) system was operating properly and answer the phones,” according to an Air Force investigation. Teixera might as well have been a guy mopping the floors at night, sitting down for a smoke break, opening an unlocked cabinet, grabbing a pile of Top Secret documents and sharing them with his drinking buddies at a dive bar in Falmouth.
And what pals he had online—gaming kids living in their parents’ basements, gun nuts, conspiracy theorists, Qanon racists and the like. How Teixeria, who had a troubled high school history, got into an Air Force intelligence unit with Top Secret clearance is a saga on its own, ably detailed in The Post series and Frontline piece. It tells how at least one of his online buddies saw him yelling ”a series of racial and antisemitic slurs into the camera.”
He showed up for school after the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas wearing a shirt emblazoned with an AR-15, according to reports. “A lot of people were wary of him,” Brooke Cleathero, a former classmate in both high school and middle school, told CNN. ”Another former classmate said his behavior did not rise to the level where people felt the need to report him, but ‘he made me nervous.’” This went on from December 2022 into the Spring of 2023, when finally one associate dimed him out.
But back to the counterintelligence side for a moment. Ever since I can remember, which is to say, since I was the founding editor of CQ/Homeland Security from 2002 to 2009, “insider threats” was a constant topic of discussion and worry at the Department of Defense and newly formed DHS. All sorts of preventive measures were proposed to neutralize incipient leaks, from new personnel vetting schemes to repeated invocations to the Defense workforce to “say something” if you “see something.”
We’ve seen how well that worked with Teixiera. Indeed, one of the astounding aspects of the Posts’s reporting is how blithely Teixiera’s superiors took his repeated violations of security protocols. On the eve of the Post/Frontline reporting, the Air Force admitted to the reporters that it had “disciplined” 15 officers who failed to report Teixiera’s suspicious activities—well after they surfaced.
All this comes two years after the Defense Science Board, an elite panel of civilian experts that advises DoD leadership on science and technology matters, “took a look at DoD’s insider threat program, found it seriously lacking [and] made several recommendations, none of which (to my knowledge) were ever implemented,” a former head of counterintelligence tells SpyTalk. The report remains classified, but you can read the Executive Summary here.
This mind you, came seven years after U.S. officials discovered that Chinese hackers had breached the Office of Personnel Management in 2014 and lifted some 21 million files of government employees who had a security clearance, “a treasure trove of information about everybody who has worked for, tried to work for, or works for the United States government,” FBI Director James Comey called it.
“Security experts have stated that the biggest problem with the breach was not the failure to prevent remote break-ins, but the absence of mechanisms to detect outside intrusion and the lack of proper encryption of sensitive data,” the Federal Times reported. After a leadership shakeup, OPM relinquished security background checks to DoD.
The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (“America’s Gatekeeper,” it calls itself) the latest iteration of a leaks-prevention and -plugging body, has taken steps to remedy that. In October 2021 the DCSA announced it had “successfully enrolled all Defense Department service members, civilians and contractors with a security clearance — about 3.6 million people — in its current continuous vetting program.”
On a closer look, it’s not as impressive as it sounds. It adds “suspicious financial activity and foreign travel” to its scans, on top of “criminal and terrorism checks that are now being done.” As presently run, however, the program would not stop Teixiera’s nighttime snooping, especially if his co-workers see nothing suspicious worth reporting about his pockets bulging with folded documents.
You’d think—or at least, I did—that following a cascade of notorious security breaches over the years (you pick ‘em: Robert Hanssen, Aldrich Ames, Edward Snowden , Chelsea Manning, Reality Winner, Vault-7), U.S. security agencies would’ve been a bit more proactive on that front.
More than two years ago, the DCSA said that “policy discussions [were] underway as to whether social media monitoring will be added” in future policing versions.
The discussion was ongoing as Teixera flooded the internet with top secret documents he had no business downloading.
The agency did not respond to my emailed questions on the issue.
(See my previous reporting on the mystery of how Teixeira got a security clearance here.)