To his teenage admirers in the “Thug Shaker Central” social media group, Jack Teixeira embodies the classic spy. One fan boy said of “OG”, as Teixeira called himself: “He’s fit. He’s strong. He’s armed. He’s trained. Just about everything you can expect out of some sort of crazy movie.”
The mass leak of intelligence is not a film plot and Teixeira is no James Bond. That was clear from the aerial shots from North Dighton Massachusetts of a gangly twenty-one year old in red shorts meekly giving himself up to the FBI “in connection with an investigation into alleged unauthorized removal, retention and transmission of national defence information”.
The insignificance of the suspect, the bloodlessness of the disclosures, the apparent lack of motive, all facilitated by online interconnectivity, are far removed from the ideologically motivated and painstaking human bravery and betrayal of cold war espionage. We are witnessing what Oscar Wilde might have called “The Decay of Spying”, at least of the kind celebrated in the fiction of Fleming, Le Carré and others and as documented by historians such as Ben Macintyre.
Intelligence agencies have an urgent need to work out what matters and what they can contribute in a world in which keyboard warriors may have nearly open access to what used to be classified information, denied to the public.
This is not the first time the US government has been caught out by tech nerds. Wikileaks’ two most important sources – David, now Chelsea, Manning and Edward Snowden – shared a similar profile of tech-proficient young men with national security access. Like Teixeira they had “a dark view of the government”. Online friends of OG say he regarded law enforcement and the intelligence community as sinister forces out to suppress citizens and keep them in the dark.
Teixera stands out for his youth and immaturity. Everything that has been gleaned about him from his internet presence paints a picture of a puerile young man not far removed from an “incel” – involuntary celibate young men who are consequently hostile to women and wider society.
The pseudonym OG is thought to stand for “Original Gangster”. Another of his aliases was “TexKilledYou”. He posted his information on Discord, a platform popular with gamers. Almost all those signed up to their particular server group were teenage boys and young men, interested in ‘God, guns and games”. They called their group “Thug Shaker Central” – a reference to an unpleasant online meme depicting “Thugs” (a racist reference to black men) shaking their bare buttocks.
He is also known to have made some casual references to Alt Right tropes. A video appears to show Teixeira firing a gun and making racist and anti-semitic slurs. His “anti-war” stance amounts to supporting Putin, since he argues Ukraine and Russia have equal rights in the war.
Teixeira enlisted as a reservist in the National Guard in 2019. He was mobilized for active service as an Airman 1st Class last autumn in the 102nd Intelligence Wing which has a mission to “provide worldwide precision intelligence and command and control along with trained and experienced Airmen for expeditionary combat support and homeland security.”
The Americans have been embarrassed by the documented evidence that they spy on allies, and by the unwanted spilling of the secrets of allies such as that the UK had the most special forces on the ground in Ukraine. Reports on weaknesses in Ukraine’s military posture might be useful to the Russians.
President Biden claimed during his visit to Ireland: “There’s nothing contemporaneous that I’m aware of that is of great significance”. The assessments of Ukraine’s strength now revealed are out of date. Unfortunately it is not yet clear how long the leaked material has been available or who might have accessed it when it was more pertinent. The leaks came to wide attention because other Discord group members spread them across different platforms. The internet is still being combed through.
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Teixeira seems to have disclosed a minimum of 350 documents, containing the fruits of US spying on foes including Russia and friends including Ukraine, South Korea and Israel. His main motivation seems to have been simply to impress and “educate” his fanboys with what he knew about world affairs.
The obvious question is: how could someone so junior have gained access to copy and disseminate “Top Secret” material. That is to misunderstand the nature of information in the digital age. There is so much of it, readily available electronically that it is now more difficult than ever to keep it out of the hands of casual or low level contacts, often with unfocussed motives for their treachery.
What Teixeira purloined was widely available to thousands of people on active security service for the US thanks to JWICS – their Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System. This reflects the developing view in Western intelligence services that electronic technology and surveillance has made it near impossible to keep secrets closely guarded. Rather than on a restricted “need to know” basis, intelligence is increasingly treated as “need to share”.
Last February the US and UK deliberately published their intelligence about Russia’s build-up for the invasion of Ukraine. In spite of President Putin’s denials, this official information hardly came as a surprise given the availability of “OSINT” – open source intelligence – already available on international media. The reason for the unexpected openness was political – to forewarn the public about what was likely to happen and to start building sympathy for Ukraine.
On both sides of the Atlantic, governments are anxious to rebuild trust following the Iraq invasion. What turned out to be inaccurate intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction was exploited by politicians to justify war.
Intelligence agencies must now expect to take their share of blame in public for alleged mistakes. Following the chaotic pull-out from Afghanistan, then foreign secretary Dominic Raab criticized the spooks on the record for telling him that a Taliban takeover that year was “unlikely”. Rather than preserving cloak-and-dagger secrecy, the recent report into the Manchester Arena Bombing called for more sharing. Sir John Saunders bemoaned “problems with the sharing of information between the Security Service and Counter Terrorism Policing” which might have averted the attack.
Anyone in possession of a smart phone generates a trail of readily available data which spies could have literally killed for in the past. Face recognition and digital ID deprives us all inevitably of aspects of privacy. Nations still find a need for individually targeted ISR – intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. But much of hard work of intelligence today consists of the gathering, evaluation and analysis of known data in real time.
Britain’s signals intelligence centre GCHQ, whose very existence was once an official secret, is now prominent in the public profile of intelligence services. If puny Jack Teixeira has undermined the image of a macho spy like James Bond, the announcement of a mathematician Anne Keast-Butler as its first female Director General of GCHQ has buried the idea that spymasters should be like George Smiley.
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