For Whistleblowers, Motives Matter

By Lisa Ling, Sarah Cords: The Progressive

Whistleblowers like Reality Winner and Daniel Hale acted on principle; the same can’t be said for alleged Pentagon leaker Jack Teixeira.

The Pentagon leaks story first broke on April 6, when The New York Times reported that classified documents had been shared among members of a Discord server. Barely a week later, live footage aired of the suspected leaker—twenty-one-year-old Air National Guard member Jack Teixeira—being arrested at his family’s home in Massachusetts.

Since then, new information has been uncovered about Teixeira, who worked on an Air Force Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS). It reveals that he was a conspiracy theorist who, prior to his arrest, aimed to back up his frequent anti-government rants by sharing top secret documents within his online community. He was also stockpiling weapons and military gear, including AR-style rifles, as well as displaying an obsession with mass shootings.

The fact that an extremist like Teixeira was granted access to highly classified information at a secret facility, and prompted no red flags, brings up a key problem: There is not enough public oversight of the military.

Every American should know more about what happens at Air Force DCGS sites across the country and around the globe. More than 1.25 million people possess a “top secret” clearance from the Department of Defense. How can we be sure that there aren’t hundreds of people like Teixeira holding documents that could impact national security, or if there are massive amounts of overly classified documents with information the public has a right to know about? Without real oversight, it is impossible to be truly informed about what our military is up to or where our tax dollars are spent.

Teixeira’s job title was “cyber transport systems journeyman,” but what does that actually mean? The Air Force says the job provides “communication through connection,” and it includes upgrading and repairing data and video equipment. It is precisely this type of work that the military is recruiting teenagers for and targeting gamers specifically.

Psychological screenings and support must be funded, encouraged and available to troops who work within these massive weapon systems to mitigate the risks of another leak. Had Teixeira undergone a psychological evaluation, he would likely have been flagged before being granted access. It is significant that DCGS where Teixeira worked remains largely unknown while  quietly gathering and distributing state secrets.

Since the leaks, a familiar narrative has taken shape: Teixeira is a bad apple; this was an isolated failure at a single facility; and that a “comprehensive review” by the Pentagon will prevent more leaks from happening in the future. This is an insufficient approach to systemic problems, especially as the Pentagon grapples with “extremists infiltrating the ranks.”

The Espionage Act of 1917, under which Teixeira is being charged, was used frequently during both the Obama and Trump Administrations. Actual whistleblowers like Reality Winner and Daniel Hale saw that the classified information they handled within their workplaces did not match the information being given to the public, acted on principle, yet were prosecuted under the same overbroad act.

Now a new proposal by Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, to amend the Espionage Act would permit those charged under it the most democratic of rights: the ability to offer their own explanation for their actions to a jury of their peers. Motives matter, and to the extent that Teixeira had any for his actions, we need to know what they were from the only person who really knows: Teixeira himself. Because Espionage Act violations are strict liability offenses, this is not currently permitted at trial, and for this reason, both whistleblowers and leakers end up taking a plea deal.

As a country that spends more money on war and surveillance than any other, shouldn’t we hold all who prosecute our wars, keep our state secrets, and spend our tax dollars to the highest standard? Teixeira’s ability to gain top secret access, despite his extremist views, shows the danger of combining a growing dependency on data collection and secrecy with our ignorance of how our military functions.

This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.