I had to get a top secret security clearance, too, years ago. It was far more rigorous than the leaker airman’s process.
by Jeff Stein
Jack Teixeira and I have a couple things in common: Cape Cod and a Top Secret security clearance.
Way back in the summer of 1966, holding a draft notice that threatened to send me into combat in Vietnam, I found a way to apply for enlistment as an Army intelligence case officer. As I’ve oft said, I didn’t care much for camping, so I knew I’d fare badly as an infantryman in the Big Muddy. An intelligence job held the prospect of landing me in some safe place like West Berlin, where I’d be tasked to recruit spies against the Soviets Or so I thought. I ended up in Vietnam anyway, but that’s another story.
|Feds found astounding weaponry where Jack Teixeira lived. (Photo via social media)|
For final acceptance into the intelligence school, I needed to have a Top Secret clearance. According to my personnel file that I got decades later, Army counterintelligence agents fanned out to interview past neighbors, teachers, friends and so forth, to see if I could be trusted enough to hold a classified job and handle secret materials. They all said nice things. Things went smoothly until they reached out to one of my few past employers—I was just a kid— a Mr. Sugarman, the proprietor of Sugarman Shoes, in Hyannis, Mass., where I’d briefly held a summer job three years earlier. Sensing a potential national security threat, the agents raced down to Cape Cod to grill Mr. Sugarman in person.
Why had he fired me? they asked Sugarman. “He was no good with women’s shoes,” he told them.
Catastrophe averted, they probably bolted to the beach.
But I wasn’t out of the woods, it would turn out. Checking my college records, the agents discovered I had seen a shrink briefly when I was a college freshman.
What was that about? they asked. I told them I’d wrestled with my sanity after a girl dropped me like a rock. It was no big deal, they decided. I was cleared for takeoff into the higher realms of intelligence training.
Standards must have changed a lot since then. Federal prosecutors revealed Wednesday that Jack Teixeira, the Air Force techie charged with leaking massive troves of highly classified military and intelligence documents, had been kicked out of high school in 2018 after a classmate overheard him talking about “Molotov cocktails, guns at the school, and racial threats.” He was, they say, “a gun enthusiast.”
Teixeira continued his path down into an extremist wormhole after high school, prosecutors further alleged that, saying that last November he wrote a social media post that he wanted to kill a “ton of people” because it would be “culling the weak minded.” In February, he asked a fellow gun nut “for advice about what kind of rifle would fire best from an SUV,” according to The Washington Post’s account, saying he wanted to commit a shooting in a ‘crowded urban or suburban environment.’” He was well prepared for that, investigators say, having a “virtual arsenal of weapons” stored at his places of residence.
“A search of Teixeira’s bedroom found that he kept a gun locker two feet from his bed containing handguns, bolt-action rifles, shotguns, an AK-style weapon and a gas mask, among other weapons,” the Post reported.
“They also found a silencer-style accessory in his desk, and a military-style helmet and mounting bracket in the dumpster outside the house,” Gizmodo added. “All weapons were seized, but a search of his parents’ residences found bolt-action rifles, AR and AK-style weapons, and a bazooka.”
Obviously, all the circuit breakers that should’ve prevented Teixeira from getting into the Air Force, much less anywhere near classified documents, failed to work.
The Air Force has suspended the operation commander and detachment commander of the 102nd Intelligence Wing, where Teixeira served. It’s a start.
But it hardly needs saying that the Air Force needs to look at its security-clearance investigators as well, who failed to live up to the standards Army gumshoes applied to me and Mr. Sugarman. Teixeria’s high school suspension should have triggered a deeper security clearance probe—that’s how it’s supposed to work: They trip over one oddity and start digging. Did they dismiss Teixeira’s chatter about “Molotov cocktails, guns at the school, and racial threats” as the typical braggadocio of white male teens at the school lockers? Or did they share Teixeira’s enthusiasm for guns and race-hazing and find his warped bullshit entertaining? Alas, it’s all too possible.
As the Jan. 6 investigators discovered, too many neo-Nazi and white supremacy extremists have found a home in the military services, including their intelligence ranks. Last year SpyTalk reported that an internal U.S. intelligence messaging system—a kind of classified Twitter channel for I.C. employees—had become a “dumpster fire of hate speech” by 2019, in the wake of PresidentTrump’s repeated lenient remarks about white supremacists.
Signs are it’s getting worse. Over the weekend, two soldiers were suspected of lighting fires and spray-painting racial slurs and a penis on the walls of a barracks at Ft. Hood, Texas, Military.com reported. On Wednesday a soldier at Ft. Bragg, N.C., home of the Green Berets, pleaded guilty to possessing an unregistered short-barrel rifle, which he intended to use “to physically remove” as many of black and brown people he could find in neighboring counties, according to the feds. A search of his home found “two extended magazines, ammunition, as well as an American flag with a Swastika, instead of the blue field and stars, and other Nazi-type patches.”
So perhaps we should not be all that surprised that, despite Teixeira’s troubled backstory, he won an assignment to the 102nd Intelligence Wing at Otis Air National Guard Base on the Cape—whereupon he was not only granted a Top Secret security clearance, he began sharing high level classified traffic with his pals in guns and wargamers chat rooms. It went undetected for a year, investigators think.
Something is seriously wrong here. It’s a bigger story—and problem—than one man’s torrential leak.
Which brings me to another personal point of reference: During the year I spent at the Defense Language School preparing to go to Vietnam, I and a number of classmates turned sour on the war. I even tried to transfer out of intelligence into the medics. (The bid was rejected.) My dismay about Vietnam only deepened after a few weeks in-country. (“What took you so long?” a CIA veteran chortled to me over lunch last year.) But it never crossed my mind to leak the classified documents I had showing the futility of the U.S. war effort. Nor, I bet, did it occur to my comrades.
Plenty of leaks did occur, to be sure, about the disparity between the Saigon command’s rosy claims and battlefield realities. In 1971, Daniel Ellsburg leaked the sordid history of the U.S. in Vietnam only after it was clear officials’ upbeat statements about their progress in the war were malevolent hogwash. But most any journalist conscientious enough to travel with troops in the field knew that.
What I’m struck by is Teixeira’s evident lack of purpose in leaking documents other than to show off—and his chatroom pals’ utter indifference to the eye-popping documents and reporting the breach, according to reports.
Is this a Gen-Z thing, an age group soaked into passivity by tides of political posturing, government lies (say, about Iraq WMD and the Afghanistan war), and social media’s wicked crosscurrents of conspiracy theories, spy-agency disinformation campaigns and “fake news”?
Or is it a wargamer and gun enthusiasts thing, abetted by the military?
“Teixeira’s blithe attitude toward sharing top secret documents on the [Discord] channels is less surprising when we consider how the military’s recruitment and training eroded important boundaries separating harmless, at-home wargaming from real life military conflicts,” extremism and propaganda expert Emma L. Briant wrote here at SpyTalk two weeks ago. “That followed last year’s problematic Army recruitment ads for its 4th Psychological Operations Group, which, amazingly enough, were created to appeal to young folks drawn to conspiracy theories. Research shows that the embrace of conspiracy theories can lead to radicalization and violence, which in the military may be worsened by combat-induced trauma or psychological distress.”
In America today, radicalism takes the form of rank racism, says extremism expert Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.
“If anybody thinks this is just a kid playing around on Discord, please go look at the charging documents, which feature the ideological writings, and the weapons, of Teixeira,” she wrote Thursday on Twitter.
“Also, in case you haven’t yet heard me say this, when it comes to the white power movement, THERE ARE NO LONE WOLVES,” she added (her caps). “Actors work WITHIN A MOVEMENT and we have to study both. DO NOT allow this to remain a narrative about one disaffected young man.”
It’s not. The movement is here, and metastasizing, it seems. How the military, especially, deals with it, is one hell of a problem—for us all.
Jeff Stein is the editor-in-chief of SpyTalk, a newsletter covering U.S. intelligence, defense and foreign policy, on the Substack platform. Previously, he was the SpyTalk columnist (and national security correspondent) at Newsweek, and before that, the SpyTalk blogger at The Washington Post.