Jack Teixeira, the recently arrested national guardsman from Massachusetts, is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to national security leakers. Whatever your views about the ‘real’ drivers for people like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, they claimed to be acting in the public interest, and they acted with a sense of purpose and agency (forgive the pun). Not so with Teixeira. Insider threat experts tend to trot out the trio of Money, Ideology and Disgruntlement when analysing the motives of insiders. But it’s not clear how comfortably Teixeira fits into that framework. The details of his case suggest that we may need to add a fourth motive to the framework: Impressing the Guys.
Who’s the victim?
What is fascinating about Teixeira is that he thinks he is the one who has been betrayed. When the junior IT specialist posted classified workplace documents in a private chatroom called ThugShakerCentral on the popular gaming site Discord, he trusted his band of gaming buddies not to share them further. This small group of mostly male teenagers, who came together in the intensity of the Covid lockdown looked up to the 21-year-old guardsman as an older, more experienced man of the world. Teixeira seems to have enjoyed and played up to his role as the elder statesman of the group. His identity as a member of this group, based on a shared enthusiasm for gaming, guns, patriotism, transgressive memes and raucous racism, was psychologically important to him. It was more important, it seems, than his identity as a national guardsman – or as one of the one million strong community of Americans with top secret clearance. Teixeira naïvely believed that his online buddies would protect the information he shared with them. He seems to have been genuinely shocked and mortified that an online ‘friend’ would betray him and put national security at risk!
Let’s blame vetting…again
The howls for more vetting have gone up as usual. But let’s be realistic. Teixeira shared most of his documents in an obscure ‘by invitation-only’ corner of the internet. If he was asked by vetters about his use of social media platforms, it is possible of course that he would have volunteered details of the chatroom. But I’d suggest there is a fair chance that he wouldn’t! And Teixeira was just 19 when he got his security clearance, hardly even out of the throes of adolescence. He hadn’t had time to build up much of a behavioural exhaust trail. Perhaps vetters were reassured by his family’s military background and what it seemed to imply about his loyalty to country. But it is not at all clear that Teixeira’s actions were born out of conscious disloyalty. More, I would suggest, out of extreme naivety.
The real issue
I suspect this was as much a problem of culture as one of vetting. Teixeira’s bosses trusted him both too much and too little. On the one hand, no-one picked up on a junior IT guy printing off large volumes of highly classified documents. That fact in itself might have sent Teixeira the wrong message about the importance of protecting classified material. On the other hand, after two years on the base, Teixeira seemed not to have grasped why it was a poor idea to take top secret documents home with him or to have felt much compunction about doing so. He may in his own mind have been loyal to his country (although as the diverse political reactions in the US showed, loyalty is arguably in the eye of the beholder). But he seems to have developed little loyalty, respect or sense of obligation to the people with whom he worked. Perhaps that was down to him. But people are shaped by their environments, and Teixeira’s ‘real world’ environment seems to have left little impression on him.
I wonder how involved Teixeira felt in the mission of his base, or indeed how well he even understood it. In a telling comment, a US intelligence official defended Teixeira’s access, saying “We’ve got low-level people who have had to access stuff because we’re not going to have a four-star general emptying waste baskets and cleaning desks”. Giving young people god-like access to intelligence without making them feel valued and involved – challenging as that might be - is a dangerous way to go. In this case, the four-star general’s dignity came at quite a cost.
Mind the generation gap
It's hard not to wonder whether there were generational factors at work here. Technology has driven a great big wedge between the life experience of middle-aged managers and that of their younger colleagues. Like Snowden before him, Teixeira probably felt a certain amount of contempt for the technical goofiness of his superiors on base – and along with that, perhaps, contempt for their rules and processes. Teixeira was technically proficient, and he lived much of his life online, forming intense relationships with people he shared interests with but didn’t really know. The respect they accorded him became an important part of his sense of self. Teixeira was confident that ThugShaker was both secure and obscure enough that his actions would never come to light. It didn’t occur to him it would be a human being that would let him down.
Not an isolated case
But it actually seems that Teixeira’s motivation is not, after all, that unique. Over the last couple of years, it has emerged that gamers with national security clearances have periodically been posting user manuals and technical documents for sensitive military equipment on War Thunder, a free to play vehicle combat simulator game. They haven’t been doing this to ‘whistleblow’ or to ‘help the other side’. They have been doing it to prove their credentials to fellow gamers challenging them about their knowledge of military vehicle design. In the heat of an online argument being right has been more important to them than being secure. As Yevgeniy Yudintsev, Russian owner of Gaijiin Entertainment, the company that owns War Thunder commented, "Our players are very passionate about War Thunder and military vehicles, and sometimes they're too passionate." Yes indeed.
About the author
Dr Susanna Berry is the behavioural science lead for the insider risk consultancy in Blacksmiths Group. She previously spent a thirty year career in a range of foreign policy- and national security-related roles in UK government.