A 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard is accused of stealing and releasing hundreds of top-secret documents containing sensitive intelligence on the Russia-Ukraine war and other global hot spots.

If convicted, Airman 1st Class Jack Teixeira will join such infamous leakers as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, who in their time caused severe damage to U.S. security by releasing troves of classified documents.

Teixeira appeared Friday in federal court charged with two crimes: unauthorized removal and unauthorized transmission of national defense information. He didn’t enter a plea immediately, perhaps waiting on a lawyer’s advice.

Since Thursday, when Teixeira was first identified as the suspect in the reported leak, many Americans have asked how such a junior member of the military could have access to so many secrets and wondered how much damage the leak caused.

Some of this we don’t yet know, but we know enough to answer some questions.

Access to classified information in the Department of Defense is granted based on two criteria: possession of the proper security clearance and a valid “need to know.” Unlike many other military occupational specialties such as infantryman or aircraft maintainer, Teixeira’s job as a cybersecurity technician required a top-secret clearance. Many never get such a clearance.

Top-secret clearances are granted based on an extensive investigation, often taking a year, which examines an individual’s family, friends, credit, and criminal history. 

As a young person, frankly, Teixeira didn’t have much history to examine, and no apparent security concerns must have come up during the investigation or it would have been denied.  

We don’t know the exact nature of Teixeira’s duties, but it is likely he didn’t have a valid “need to know” regarding the information he allegedly stole. Among the documents are briefing slides prepared for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as elements of the CIA’s daily briefing for senior government officials.

It’s hard to conceive of anyone in the Massachusetts National Guard as having a need for such documents, much less a junior airman or even a cyberwarrior.

The stolen documents came from the Defense Department’s top-secret information technology system, the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System. It is the most secure of the Pentagon’s communication systems, where all the closest-held secrets are kept.

Teixeira’s military unit, the 102nd Intelligence Support Squadron, likely had several terminals that hosted this communications system. Whether investigators believe Teixeria printed the documents himself or pilfered documents someone else printed is unclear.

What is clear is that the airman allegedly took photos of illegally obtained materials and posted them to social media, including Discord, a software app that allows users to chat in real-time using text, voice, or video.

Valid questions remain about how Teixeira allegedly got access to the documents. Within the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, internal controls are supposed to regulate who gets what access to information. If investigators believe that Teixeira somehow got access to these documents (as opposed to stealing already printed documents), then the military’s processes for controlling access must be examined.  

Despite President Joe Biden’s statement to reporters that he was “not concerned” about the disclosures, everything we have learned suggests he should be. The serious damage falls in two categories: sensitive operational information regarding the Russia-Ukraine war and embarrassing details regarding U.S. surveillance of our allies.

The war information included such details as casualties, disposition, and status of Ukrainian forces, munition stocks, and estimates of the potential success of Ukrainian counterattacks. It all appears legitimate and damaging.

In military operations, the value of intelligence depends in part on its timeliness. If Germany had had certain knowledge of the Allies’ landing locations on June 3, 1944, three days before the D-Day invasion, that would have been invaluable. On June 7, by comparison? Useless. 

Similarly, some of the Russia-Ukraine war information already has been overcome by events. But in some cases, release of this data caused significant harm, particularly those elements that tell Russia the degree to which U.S. intelligence can observe its operations or provide information on Ukrainian vulnerabilities.

Also damaging to U.S. interests were leaks reflecting intelligence collection efforts toward our ally South Korea and partner Egypt.

Teixeira’s apparent motive? Some speculate that it may have been nothing more than a childlike desire to “show off” access to sensitive intelligence.

Before being given access to top-secret intelligence, however, Teixeira would have been given explicit briefings on the penalties for divulging classified information and signed a lifetime pledge never to do so.

Many legal steps are still to come, and under our legal system, Teixeira is innocent until proven guilty. If convicted, the young airman could face up to 15 years in federal prison.

Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in federal prison, but served only seven after President Barack Obama shamefully commuted the sentence. (Snowden, the former computer intelligence consultant who leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency in 2013, ultimately fled to Russia for asylum and eventual citizenship.)

A few have argued that Teixeira was some sort of whistleblower, but these arguments fall flat. Indeed, nothing divulged here falls into the category of information that needed to be exposed.

Instead, by government definition, the release of top-secret information could be expected to cause “exceptionally grave danger” to national security. Unauthorized disclosure of such information should be accompanied by a heavy penalty.

The spelling of Jack Teixeira’s name was corrected four hours after this analysis was published.

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