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Air Force will discipline 15 members following classified leaks in online forum

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. Air National Guard says it's disciplining 15 members in response to the leaking of classified information. This comes after an investigation into Airman First Class Jack Teixeira, who served at an Air National Guard base on Cape Cod, Mass. He's accused of leaking classified information in an online chat forum. In a June court appearance, he pleaded not guilty. For more, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here. Tom, tell us about what was actually leaked in this case.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Jack Teixeira is a 21-year-old. He was a cyber technician in a low-level air guard job, and he's accused of leaking hundreds of pages online to the chat group Discord - photos of documents, rewritten paragraphs of texts. And it's highly classified - also details about the capabilities of U.S. spy satellites, North Korean drones, Ukrainian military operations, also phone intercepts of Russian generals, a massive and widespread leak.

SHAPIRO: And do we know any more about why he wasn't caught?

BOWMAN: We do, Ari, and it's amazing. The Air Force investigator said in a report that on at least four occasions, beginning last summer and continuing until early this year, some officials knew what he was doing, told him to stop or failed to report it to authorities because - get this - they were afraid security officials would, quote, "overreact." Teixeira allegedly was seen looking at classified websites he shouldn't have had access to, then writing about it on Post-it notes, talking in detail in meetings about classified matters he should not have been privy to. He started walking out with documents. It was only after he started posting hundreds of pages online, allegedly, that he was caught and arrested in April by the FBI.

Now, the Air Force report said that if some of Teixeira's supervisors had come forward earlier, they could have restricted him in some ways, maybe reduce the depths of the leaks and reduced their disclosure by several months. And the report said commanders were not vigilant in keeping an eye on those under their command. And ironically, their priority was things like processing clearances and granting access.

SHAPIRO: That sounds very damning. What more can you tell us about Teixeira's background?

BOWMAN: Well, it's also raising troubling questions. He's from a small Massachusetts town not far from the air base, and he had trouble in high school in 2018. Classmates said he talked about Molotov cocktails, guns, made racial threats. He was suspended and underwent a psychiatric evaluation, and that led police to deny him a gun permit. The following year, he joined the Air Guard and, in 2020, got that gun permit because he argued he was now in the military entrusted with government secrets.

So given all that, how was he able to get his clearance to this top-secret, sensitive, compartmented information? Well, the report says Teixeira - his background check had some negative information, but it was determined that, quote, "whole-person concept and government guidelines were used," and the clearance was approved. But the report also allowed that the negative information about him could have led officials to keep a closer eye on him. Enhanced monitoring is the term they use, and that might have alerted official to potential problems.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, what kind of damage did the leak cause?

BOWMAN: Well, we'll probably never know because any damage estimate, of course, will be classified, and Congress will be briefed. But, of course, you don't want to alert your adversaries to what you know and what you can do. If Russian generals, for example, know you're tapping their phones, they might just change the numbers or resort to other communications. You've lost that link.

SHAPIRO: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. 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.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.