Jack Teixeira, suspected of leaking secret US documents, appears in court

A 21-year-old member of the U.S. Air National Guard accused of leaking top secret military intelligence records online made his initial appearance before a federal judge in Boston on Friday to face charges he unlawfully copied and transmitted classified materials.

Jack Douglas Teixeira of North Dighton, Massachusetts, who was arrested by heavily armed FBI agents at his home on Thursday, appeared in a crowded federal court wearing a brown khaki jumpsuit.

At the hearing, Boston's top federal national security prosecutor, Nadine Pellegrini, requested that Teixeira be detained pending trial, and a detention hearing was set for Wednesday. The court appointed a public defender to represent Teixeira.

The leaked classified documents at the heart of the investigation were posted online on a social media website in March and perhaps earlier, but news of their existence did not come to light until it was reported by the New York Times last week.

Jack Teixeira
Jack Teixeira Photo credit: Instagram

It is believed to be the most serious security breach since more than 700,000 documents, videos and diplomatic cables appeared on the WikiLeaks website in 2010. In the WikiLeaks case, the leaker - U.S. Army Private First Class Chelsea Manning - was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Democratic President Barack Obama later commuted her sentence.

U.S. officials are still assessing the damage done by the leaks, which included records showing purported details of Ukrainian military vulnerabilities and embarrassed Washington by revealing its spying on allies.

In a criminal complaint made public on Friday, Teixeira was charged with unlawfully copying and transmitting classified defense records. Each offense can carry up to 10 years in prison.

He was also charged with another offense which makes it a crime for an employee of the United States to knowingly remove classified records to an unauthorized location.

For now, Teixeira faces three charges in connection with just one leaked document: a classified record which described the status of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and included details about troop movements on a particular date.

Experts expect the charges against him will only grow, as investigators examine each document he uploaded, confirm its classification status and decide which ones could be disclosed to a jury without gravely damaging national security.

The number of times he separately uploaded and transmitted each document could also be a factor in how many charges he will face.

"They are going to pick the ones, I would imagine, that foreign governments have already seen," said Stephanie Siegmann, the former National Security Chief for the U.S. Attorney's office in Boston and now a partner with Hinckley Allen.

In a sworn statement, an FBI agent said Teixeira had held a top secret security clearance since 2021, and that he also maintained sensitive compartmented access to other highly classified programs.

Since May 2022, the FBI said Teixeira has been serving as an E-3/airman first class in the U.S. Air National Guard and has been stationed at Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts.

Siegmann said one lingering question is why a 21-year-old Guardsman held such a top-level security clearance.

"That's an issue that Department of Defense needs to now deal with," she said. "Why would he be entitled to these documents about the Russia-Ukrainian conflict?"

Teixeira only spoke twice during the brief proceeding on Friday, answering "yes" when asked whether he understood his right to remain silent.

He also confirmed he had filled out a financial affidavit, which the judge said shows he will qualify to be represented by a federal public defender.

After the hearing, three of Teixeira's family members left the courthouse, with a group of reporters trailing them for several blocks. They entered a car without making any comments.

The Justice Department opened a formal criminal probe last week into the leaked documents, after a referral from the Department of Defense. The leak was a "deliberate, criminal act," the Pentagon said on Thursday, adding that the military had taken steps to review distribution lists and ensure people receiving information had a need to know.

Reuters has reviewed more than 50 of the documents, labeled "Secret" and "Top Secret," but has not independently verified their authenticity. The number of documents leaked is likely to be over 100.

The investigative news outlet Bellingcat, the Washington Post and the New York Times have traced the documents' earliest appearance to a defunct server on the instant messaging site Discord. In a chat group on the site, Teixeira went by the handle OG and was admired by the group's mostly young members, who shared a love for guns and military gear.