From Ellsberg to Assange: Jack Teixeira joins list of alleged leakers

<span>Photograph: Nikki Short/EPA</span>
Photograph: Nikki Short/EPA

Jack Teixeira, the 21-year-old Massachusetts air national guard member who was charged on Friday with leaking classified Pentagon documents, has joined a long list of individuals who have been prosecuted for allegedly disclosing sensitive US national security intelligence.

Previous leaks have ranged from information about US wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan to details of Russian interference in American elections. Despite the diversity of the subject matter, the treatment of the leakers has shared a common relentlessness on the part of the US government in pursuing those it accuses of breaching its trust.

Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg in 2004 in a red phone booth.
Daniel Ellsberg in 2004. Photograph: Stephen Hird/REUTERS

In March 1971, Ellsberg, a military analyst, leaked a top-secret study to the New York Times. The document, which became known as the Pentagon Papers, spanned US involvement in Vietnam between 1945 and 1967 and exposed covert efforts by successive US presidents to escalate the conflict while hiding deep doubts about the chances of victory.

Ellsberg was prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act – a law designed to catch first world war spies – and faced a maximum sentence of 115 years in prison. All charges were dropped after the FBI’s illegal wiretapping of Ellsberg was revealed.

Early last month, the 92-year-old Ellsberg, who has become revered as the doyen of whistleblowers, revealed that he has terminal cancer and has months to live.

Jeffrey Sterling

Sterling, a former CIA operations officer, served more than two years of a 42-month sentence after he was prosecuted under the Espionage Act for allegedly leaking information about a botched covert US operation with Iran to the then New York Times journalist James Risen. In 2003, Risen published details of the operation in a book, State of War.

It was not until 2011, under Barack Obama’s administration, that Sterling was arrested. Federal prosecutors accused him of leaking details of the Iran engagement out of “anger and resentment” – a reference to an earlier claim from Sterling, who is Black, that he suffered discrimination while at the CIA.

Sterling has denied ever talking to Risen about Iran.

Thomas Drake

A former senior official with the National Security Agency (NSA), Drake was charged in 2010 with leaking classified information to the Baltimore Sun. He faced 10 counts with a possible 35-year sentence, though the charges were whittled down to a single misdemeanor for which he was given a year of probation.

Drake has always insisted that he had no intention of harming national security, presenting himself as a whistleblower who had been trying to sound the alarm on technical flaws in NSA programs that were wasting billions of dollars.

Chelsea Manning

Chelsea Manning.
Chelsea Manning. Photograph: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images

As a former intelligence analyst posted outside Baghdad during the Iraq war, Manning had access to classified information that shone a light on the vagaries of war there and in Afghanistan. She leaked hundreds of thousands of military records and diplomatic cables via the open information site WikiLeaks in 2010 in one of the largest disclosures of military secrets in US history.

Three years later, she was convicted under the Espionage Act. She was given a 35-year sentence, of which she served seven. In a memoir published last year, README.txt, she wrote: “What I did during my enlistment was an act of rebellion, of resistance, and of civic disobedience.”

John Kiriakou

Kiriakou, a former CIA counter-terrorism officer, was sentenced to two years in prison in 2012 for leaking the identity of a covert operative to a journalist. He was the first CIA officer to be imprisoned for doing so.

Prosecutors insisted that they went after Kiriakou to protect the safety of undercover government agents. He countered that he was a whistleblower attempting to expose the use of torture in the so-called “war on terror”.

Kiriakou was the first former government official to talk in public about waterboarding, the form of controlled drowning used against terrorism suspects in the aftermath of 9/11.

Edward Snowden

In 2013 Snowden disclosed inside intelligence about the US government’s dragnet surveillance of the digital communications of millions of Americans through the Guardian and Washington Post. Working at the time as an NSA contractor, he fled to Hong Kong and from there to Russia, where he was granted asylum.

After he outed himself through the Guardian, a raft of Republican politicians demanded that Snowden be extradited back to the US to face trial as a traitor. Donald Trump called for his execution three years before he was elected US president.

In his support, a number of prominent public figures, including Ellsberg, have lauded Snowden as a pro-democracy hero who should be allowed to come home with a pardon.

Reality Winner

The former NSA intelligence contractor and air force linguist was sentenced to more than five years under the Espionage Act in 2018 for leaking a top-secret document on Russian interference in the US presidential election. She pleaded guilty to having handed a copy of a classified report about Russian hacking of voting software suppliers in the 2016 race.

She was released after three years. Having regained her freedom she told CBS: “I am not a traitor, I am not a spy. I am somebody who only acted out of love for what this country stands for.”

Julian Assange

The WikiLeaks founder was initially charged in 2019 with conspiring to hack into a military computer – an accusation arising out of the massive leak by Manning to WikiLeaks nine years earlier. The seriousness of prosecutors’ case against him was dramatically expanded later that year to include 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act.

Assange has been held for the past four years in Belmarsh prison in London as extradition proceedings work their way through British courts. The Joe Biden White House has come under mounting pressure to drop the charges, including from leading news outlets, on grounds that the prosecution is putting a chill on press freedom.

Jack Teixeira

The air national guardsman now finds his name added to the list. He was charged in a Boston federal court on Friday with two counts under the Espionage Act, each carrying a possible 10-year sentence.

Prosecutors allege that they have evidence to prove that Teixeira unlawfully retained and transmitted hundreds of classified defence documents. The FBI has indicated that he enjoyed security clearance for sensitive intelligence marked “top secret/sensitive compartmented information”.

The leak of the Pentagon documents is believed to have started on the social media platform Discord. Teixeira reportedly visited the platform over several years posting about guns, online games and racist memes, though any motive for the alleged leak remains obscure.