If you take a poll of American pundits and policymakers about the greatest threat facing the U.S. government, they’d probably put China at the top of the list. Maybe a handful would opt for Russia. A few holdouts from the War on Terrorism era might point to Islamic extremism.
But the greatest threat to the U.S. government is actually Junior Airman Jack Teixeira.
The 21-year-old behind the leak of U.S. intelligence documents might seem like just a guy who wanted to win a few points with his buddies in an on-line discussion group. Sharing insider information to demonstrate his street cred was, of course, an extraordinarily stupid thing to do. But Teixeira was no whistleblower like Chelsea Manning or Reality Winner. He shared the documents in the belief that they wouldn’t go beyond the relatively small circle of gamers in his chat group Thug Shaker Central on the Discord platform.
So, how much of a threat could that be?
For all his youth and naivete, Teixeira represents a sizable government-skeptical force that works in or adjacent to the U.S. government. Many of these right-wing and extreme libertarian individuals can be found in the military. Others are elected representatives—from school boards up to the U.S. Congress—motivated to run for office by Donald Trump or his extremist predecessors. They would never characterize themselves as anti-American. But in their mind, government is not really part of America—not their America, not the real America.
This version of nationalism stripped of any love of government is only part of the ideological picture.
Teixeira was embedded in the right-wing gamer culture that has taken aim at women, minorities, and the presumed “deep state” through “trolling” and “doxxing” (calling in false reports to police and SWAT teams). Right-wing recruitment takes place in the chat of first-person shooter games and on social media applications like Discord, a platform for gamers since 2015 and also a popular meeting place for extremists. The organizers of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, for instance, used Discord to plan the event, while the white supremacist behind the Buffalo mass shooting last year used Discord to communicate his thoughts through a personal diary.
Discord: what a perfect name for a communications platform that has divided the country even as it has united the right.
It’s not easy to figure out Teixeira’s actual views. According to The Washington Post,
[M]embers of Teixeira’s server have showed The Post video of Teixeira shouting racist and antisemitic slurs before firing a rifle and said he referenced government raids at Ruby Ridge in Idaho and in Waco, Tex.—events with deep resonance among right-wing, anti-government extremists.
Another Post piece provides more insight into Teixeira’s worldview:
[H]e spoke of the United States, and particularly law enforcement and the intelligence community, as a sinister force that sought to suppress its citizens and keep them in the dark. He ranted about “government overreach.” [He] told his online companions that the government hid horrible truths from the public. He claimed, according to the members, that the government knew in advance that a white supremacist intended to go on a shooting rampage at a Buffalo supermarket in May 2022… [He] said federal law enforcement officials let the killings proceed so they could argue for increased funding, a baseless notion that the member said he believes and considers an example of OG’s penetrating insights about the depth of government corruption.
The links between the U.S. military and the far right go back many years, though it’s hard to know just how deep the relationship really is. Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, was a decorated veteran but developed his anti-government views largely outside the military. Between 2001 and 2013, , according to New America Foundation data, 21 veterans were involved in committing or planning far-right violence. A Florida National Guard member, who was the co-founder of the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division, was convicted in 2018 of possessing explosive materials (released from prison, he plotted to bomb a power station in Maryland and was re-arrested). Veterans were also overrepresented in the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
According to an October 2020 Pentagon report on the inroads made by white supremacists in the military, “U.S. military personnel and veterans are ‘highly prized’ recruits for supremacist groups, and leaders of those groups try to join the military themselves and get those already in their groups to enlist. Their goal is to obtain weapons and skills and to try to borrow the military’s bravado and cachet.”
In her 2020 congressional testimony, Heidi Beirich of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism reported that the
Armed Services’ own soldiers know that white supremacy in the ranks is a serious problem. A Military Times poll in 2017 found that nearly 25 percent of actively serving military personnel have encountered white nationalism and racism in the Armed Forces. Active duty troops were about 1.3 million at the time, meaning some 325,000 soldiers had encountered white nationalism in some form. Follow up surveys in 2018 and 2019 by the same publication found substantially the same troubling results.
Before the 1970s, such white nationalism and racism would have overlapped substantially with official U.S. government policy. But now, in the wake of the civil rights, affirmative action, and #BlackLivesMatter movements, this extremism has acquired a distinctly anti-government character. Unlike in Germany or New Zealand, the U.S. government has not made much of an effort to eliminate this potential fifth column from the military’s ranks.
Republicans to the Rescue
Given the ideological affinities, It’s no surprise that the far right has come to Teixeitra’s defense. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) has supported Teixeira for being “white, male, christian and anti-war,” which “makes him an enemy to the Biden regime.” She goes on: “Ask yourself who is the real enemy. A young low level national guardsmen? Or the administration that is waging war in Ukraine, a non-NATO nation, against nuclear Russia without war powers?”
Fox’s Tucker Carlson, too, has sided with Teixeira and Russia against both Ukraine and the Biden administration:
Just two weeks ago, for example, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told the U.S. Senate that Russian military power is “waning.” In other words, Russia is losing the war. That was a lie. He knew it was when he said it, but he repeated it in congressional testimony. That is a crime, but Lloyd Austin has not been arrested for committing that crime. Instead, the only man who has been taken into custody or likely ever will be is a 21-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guardsman who leaked the slides that showed that Lloyd Austin was lying. He revealed the crimes, therefore he’s the criminal.
The Pentagon has been consistently pessimistic about Ukraine’s ability to win the war outright, and some of that pessimism has even been expressed publicly. The leaks have only confirmed that less-than-sanguine viewpoint. But that doesn’t mean that Russia is winning the war. Quite the contrary. The Kremlin’s attempt this winter and early spring to seize the entire Donbas region resulted only in the acquisition of a few square miles of scorched earth.
Carlson, of course, is not interested in the truth, only in Biden-bashing and leading the charge against the U.S. government more generally. Even when Trump was putatively in charge of the federal government, the extreme right and its media darlings managed to maintain their anti-government stance by transferring their animus to a “deep state” that they’d invented largely for that purpose. Look to Trump, indicted but still in the running, to exploit this extreme libertarianism in his campaign to be reelected in 2024.
What the Leaks Reveal
The essential contents of the documents that Teixeira leaked is yesterday’s news. Ukraine is running low on missiles to defend itself against Russian aerial attacks, it has limited resources that it can use in its long-awaited spring counter-offensive, and Russia is having an equally difficult time dealing with the loss of troops and dissension within its own ranks.
The leaks don’t reveal anything about Ukraine’s upcoming counter-offensive because the government in Kyiv hasn’t shared that information with Washington—obviously a wise move given the porous nature of the U.S. intelligence community. The documents don’t identify the specific sources of Russian intel. They don’t uncover any major behind-the-scenes funding of the Kremlin’s war efforts, though the Chinese promised to provide some military assistance disguised as civilian shipments and Egypt was planning to send 40,000 rockets on the sly.
Some revelations outside the Ukrainian front are indeed new—for instance, about China’s supersonic drone capabilities—but others have been relatively small bore. The allies have some Special Forces on the ground in Ukraine, including 14 from the United States. It’s hard to say what they’re doing, but given the Biden administration’s extreme caution around engaging Russian forces directly, they might be there only to facilitate a rapid evacuation of embassy personnel if things should suddenly go south. Israel might reverse its position on providing lethal aid to Ukraine—but then again, it might not. The United States has been spying on ally South Korea, but that’s not a surprise after the Snowden-era revelations about Washington listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone.
What’s most surprising about the revelations is that a 21-year-old airman, a low-level computer tech at an Air National Guard base in Sandwich, Massachusetts, had access to these documents and could so easily bring them home to be copied. It’s a surprise to me, at least. But it’s apparently not so surprising to those familiar with the intelligence community who, according to The New York Times, “say untold thousands of troops and government civilians have access to top secret materials, including many young, inexperienced workers the military relies on to process the monumental amount of intelligence it collects.” They just log on to the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System and boom: secrets at their fingertips.
The sad truth is that the edifice of U.S. intelligence is so huge that it must rely on the services of the young and the restless. It’s not just the intelligence community. Every administration must deal with loose lips. The Trump administration sprang leaks in every direction and went to great lengths to try to plug them. Given the sheer number of opportunities and motivations, it’s surprising that more sensitive materials aren’t floating around the Internet.
Anti-government sentiment—in the military, in the political realm, among the public—adds something new to the equation. It’s happening not so much on the left, where it was a feature of the 1960s, but on the far right. Once confined to the fringes of American life, this far right is now committed to gaining power through government institutions like school boards and the National Guard.
That’s why Jack Teixeira is such a threat. Leakers will come and go. But far-right groomers and their recruits are in it for the long haul. The next time that an extremist president tries to overturn an election or seize power through illegal means, a radicalized military might not stay in the barracks to defend the constitution while a Congress led by Greene and her ilk might just roll over and die.