The Online Racists Stealing Military Secrets
Jack Teixiera’s odyssey from online racist to alleged classified-information shitposter to federal inmate shocked many — but it shouldn’t. In recent years, the Defense and Justice departments have investigated a number of servicemembers for involvement in far-right groups — and found they also appear to enjoy sharing the government’s most closely held secrets with their bros.
While Republicans in Congress have played down the risk of extremists in the military, experts who follow the issue say they’re not surprised to see extremist beliefs and leaks of classified information coincide. In a 2021 hearing on extremism in the armed forces, Republican members of Congress wondered aloud whether the issue had really “proven itself to be a major problem” or whether the issue was merely “political theater” for Democrats to enforce a partisan ideological discipline on the armed services. Republicans in the House and Senate have blasted Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s training efforts to root out extremism and voted against legislation to track “white-supremacist and neo-Nazi activity in the uniformed services.”
“I don’t think we should be surprised at all,” says Don Christensen, a retired Air Force colonel who served as the Air Force’s chief prosecutor. “It’s clear that we at least have a subculture of racism and antisemitism within the military, and that there are people who are willing to act out by sharing classified information or making terroristic threats against those minorities or Jewish people.”
The military is one of the nation’s most diverse organizations, and only a small percentage of servicemembers are racially motivated extremists. But when it comes to leaks, even a handful of white nationalists can do a lot of damage.
Teixeira’s racism appears to have been more of an individual project, rather than organized, like other racist members of the military who have recently faced charges. A video of him at a shooting range obtained by The Washington Post showed the Air National Guardsman yelling racist and antisemitic slurs while popping off rounds at a shooting range. And on his Discord servers, users regularly posted similar memes. In a detention memo filed late Wednesday, prosecutors alleged that local police had denied him a gun permit because of violent, racist threats he made in high school remarks and had discussed building an “assassination van and an urge to “kill a [expletive] ton of people.”
It’s unclear what made Teixeira post volumes of sensitive documents on social media. He embraced right-wing conspiracy theories. including a false claim that the white supremacist massacre at a Buffalo grocery store was part of a secret government plot. But he mostly appeared keen to share classified documents in order to revel in the awe of the young teenagers who looked up to the 21-year-old in his small Discord server.
Other far-right members of the armed services have been more aggressive and extreme.
Take Ethan Melzer, for example. Melzer, a 21-year-old Army private, received a security clearance and a posting to Vicenza, Italy, where he regularly browsed jihadist propaganda from the Islamic State and chatted with neo-Nazi friends in the obscure, Satanic “Order of the Nine Angles” neo-Nazi cult on social media, according to court documents.
In 2020, the Army informed Melzer’s unit they’d be shipping out to guard Incirlik Air Base Turkey, a U.S. military base which is home to American tactical nuclear weapons. After receiving the orders, Melzer messaged fellow online racists with the sensitive information about his unit’s deployment time, location, and security vulnerabilities at the base where they were headed in hopes that they would carry out a mass-casualty terrorist attack on American troops and spark “another 10-year war in the Middle East,” according to court documents.
For his efforts, the government charged Melzer with illegal transmission of national defense information, in addition to a host of other charges related to the attempt to organize a terrorist attack on U.S. forces. A federal judge sentenced Melzer to 45 years in prison in March for his terrorist plotting.
Liam Collins, a low-ranked 20-year-old rifleman with 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, landed in similar trouble following the leak of chats from the neo-Nazi forum Iron March.
In November 2019, the independent investigative news site Bellingcat noted a data dump from the defunct neo-Nazi and white-supremacist message board. The screen names, IP addresses, and direct messages from the forum — including messages from Collins — were published anonymously.
After reporters publicly identified Collins as an active-duty Marine and participant in the neo-Nazi forum, prosecutors charged Collins and three associates with conspiring to carry out a terrorist attack on an electricity substation in North Carolina as part of a larger goal to create a white-supremacist homeland within the United States.
Collins hasn’t been charged with mishandling or retaining classified information, but there are signs that federal law enforcement found what it believed to be classified material on one of his devices. In early 2021, the Justice Department warned that it had recovered information from “one of the devices seized in October 2020 which appeared to be classified material” and “that evidence existed which indicated the defendants engaged in substantial sharing of other information.” Judge Richard E. Myers announced afterward that attorneys in the case “should be ready to discuss the Classified Information Procedures Act and its potential impact on discovery and trial in these matters.”
The Justice Department declined to elaborate further about the issue of classified information in the case. An attorney for Collins did not respond to questions from Rolling Stone.
Even in cases where extremists aren’t accused of sending their friends secret documents, a number of them have still managed to obtain security clearances. Federal prosecutors charged Killian Mackeith Ryan — a soldier in the 82nd Airborne who the FBI allegedly caught telling friends he joined the military to get “more proficient in killing n—-rs” — with lying on his security-clearance application.
Michael Miselis, a missile engineer defense contractor for Northrop Grumman, received a top-secret security clearance from the Pentagon while a member of the neo-Nazi “Rise Above Movement. Miselis and three other members of the group later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to riot after federal law enforcement identified them as participants in the white-nationalist riot at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Brad Moss, a Washington attorney who specializes in matters of national security, tells Rolling Stone that the process of security clearances is “not designed to identify the personal politics or ideology of an applicant. Whether someone is an ardent liberal, a defiant conservative, or a run-of-the-mill libertarian is supposed to be completely irrelevant to the security vetting process.”
There’s an exception, Moss explains: “Unless, of course, those political views resulted in conduct that implicates another security concern, such as engaging in criminal conduct like the Summer 2020 riots or the Jan. 6 riots, or associating with foreign nationals of a particular political persuasion in a manner that puts the person at risk of exploitation.”
But the issue of far-right extremists creating intelligence community concerns is not a new one. Following the 1985 arrest of John A. Walker Jr., a Navy chief warrant officer who spent 20 years passing some of America’s most closely held secrets to the Soviet Union, reporters discovered that Walker had once applied to become a member of the Klu Klux Klan and joined the far-right John Birch Society.
“I think the starting point is to accept that this is happening and to find out to what degree it’s happening. I still think there’s a lot of denial that there’s a problem. I’ve seen retired generals and admirals pushing back on the idea that we have an extremist problem,” says Christensen. “I think it’s pretty clear we do. It’s just a question about how big of a problem it is.”