Authorities in the United States have arrested a man in relation to a leak of classified US military intelligence documents, the US Department of Justice announced.
US Attorney General Merrick Garland said on Thursday that Jack Teixeira was arrested in connection with a probe into “alleged unauthorised removal, retention and transmission of classified national defence information”.
“Teixeira is an employee of the United States Air Force National Guard,” Garland told reporters during a brief news conference.
“FBI agents took Teixeira into custody earlier this afternoon without incident.”
The leak of the classified Pentagon documents, which were shared online, continues to dominate headlines as US President Joe Biden’s administration has scrambled to get to the bottom of what happened.
The files purported to show American military assessments of the war in Ukraine, as well as issues related to some of the US’s top allies, such as Israel and South Korea.
One of the latest revelations indicated the US was monitoring United Nations chief Antonio Guterres because it believed he was too soft on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.
On Thursday, The New York Times reported that about half a dozen FBI agents armed with rifles pushed onto a Massachusetts property to make the arrest of Teixeira.
In a statement, the FBI said it “has aggressively pursued investigative leads” since late last week. “Today’s arrest exemplifies our continued commitment to identifying, pursuing, and holding accountable those who betray our country’s trust and put our national security at risk,” it said.
Video footage of the arrest, played on US news channels, showed officers accompanying a young man wearing a T-shirt and bright red shorts into a waiting car in North Dighton, a small town about 30km (18 miles) east of Providence, Rhode Island.
The Times said the 21-year-old is believed to be the leader of a small, gaming chat group on the social media app Discord where the documents were leaked over the past few months.
Teixeira’s arrest is expected to raise questions about how one of the most high-profile US intelligence leaks in years could have been caused by such a young, low-ranking service member.
“One of the strange things about the leaks from the very beginning was that this was a really odd place for them to show up,” David Silbey, an associate professor at Cornell University who specialises in defence policy and military history, told Al Jazeera before news of the arrest.
“If it had been a sort of espionage act, why put them on a random Discord server? You wouldn’t reveal it publicly anyway; you’d just pass it back to Russia. If it was a leak to share with the public, it’s about the worst possible way to leak it,” Silbey said.
But regardless of the intent, he added that the leak remains “significant”.
During a separate news conference on Thursday, a spokesperson for the US Department of Defense said the leak was “a deliberate, criminal act”.
“We continue to work around the clock along with the interagency and the intelligence community to better understand the scope, scale and impact of these leaks,” Pat Ryder told reporters.
He stressed that the department could not comment on the Department of Justice’s ongoing investigation, nor could it reveal much about the documents themselves.
“We continue to review a variety of factors as it relates to safeguarding classified materials,” Ryder said. “This includes examining and updating distribution lists, assessing how and where intelligence products are shared, and a variety of other steps.”
The Justice Department did not say what charges Teixeira would face, although they will likely involve criminal charges of wilfully retaining and transmitting national defence information.
Brandon Van Grack, a former Justice Department national security prosecutor now with the law firm Morrison Foerster, told the Reuters news agency that the likely charges could carry up to 10 years imprisonment, even if Teixeira did not intend to cause harm.
“I think this is someone who is facing on the higher end of exposure for years in prison… because the leaks were so damaging,” Van Grack said.
A spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office in Boston said Teixeira is expected to make his initial appearance on Friday.
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