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The suspected leaker of Pentagon documents left a long trail of digital breadcrumbs

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

The U.S. government is accusing a 21-year-old Air National Guard member named Jack Teixeira of retaining and transmitting classified government documents. Teixeira was arrested yesterday and made his first court appearance this morning. In a criminal complaint, the FBI says the government tracked him down through social media.

NPR cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin is here to talk about her reporting. Hey, Jenna.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Hey, Andrew.

LIMBONG: So remind us how we got here. What is Teixeira accused of?

MCLAUGHLIN: So now we know, per the new criminal complaint that came out in Boston this morning, that the government is accusing him of removing, retaining and disseminating classified information, and those are charges that carry up to 10 years. According to his service records, he's listed as a cyber transport systems journeyman on Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod.

LIMBONG: Translate that for us. What does that mean he actually did?

MCLAUGHLIN: Basically, that means he was an IT employee. He was tasked with helping maintain servers, including the government's network for hosting top secret and sensitive compartmented information. That network is called the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communication System, or JWICS, as they often refer to it in the military.

He was caught through social media. According to some of his online friends that I chatted with, he started by posting these long descriptions of sensitive materials, and then he actually moved on to posting photos of the classified documents. And he was doing all of this in a chatroom that he managed on a social media platform called Discord, which is popular with gamers. All of this began back in December, but he wasn't caught until members of that chat actually started spreading some of the documents outside of the private channel.

LIMBONG: What else did his friends say about him and the documents? Did they have any sense of why he chose to share the documents?

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah, I talked with a couple of his friends. One member of the Discord channel that was there with Teixeira said that it was mostly comprised of people who followed a YouTuber called Oxide, who apparently did a lot of military roleplaying. They explained that Oxide is someone who attracts extremists of all kinds, but mostly people interested in guns and military gear. This person said that Teixeira typically posted about project cars and guns and a lot of laws that concern them, and then, occasionally, he'd get into his conservative political views.

Two members of the Discord confirmed seeing the documents, and one of them actually shared around 50 of them with NPR, but the members of the group didn't immediately take them seriously. One of the members I spoke with said that they actually thought the documents were for a video game called Hearts Of Iron IV - it's a map strategy game - and they didn't think that they were actual classified military documents.

LIMBONG: If Teixeira works in IT and security, how exactly was he caught so quickly?

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. I mean, so while this Discord channel was technically private, that doesn't mean that Teixeira didn't leave a long digital trail of clues about himself. According to the criminal complaint, he actually used his real name, his credit card and address to register the social media profile, which is the same one that he used to post the documents. Discord actually has a policy of complying with government requests when they aren't overly broad - at least that's what it says on their website. That kind of says that he didn't actually have very good operational security and was not exactly thinking about what he was doing and the potential consequences.

LIMBONG: All right. So what's next for this case?

MCLAUGHLIN: So for now, a judge in Boston has decided that Teixeira should be kept in federal custody until at least next week. Meanwhile, the U.S. military is still investigating which documents were posted where. They also need to keep reassuring allies who might be upset about these leaks and then figure out what, if any, changes need to be made about who has access to these kinds of files, in addition to the process for background checks.

LIMBONG: That was NPR's Jenna McLaughlin. Thanks so much for your reporting.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.