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The Surreal, Baffling Place That the Pentagon’s Intelligence Leaked
April 15, 2023

The Surreal, Baffling Place That the Pentagon’s Intelligence Leaked

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Jack Teixeira arrest: How Pentagon documents were leaked on a Discord server.

Last month, someone shared leaked intelligence documents on a Discord server run by a YouTuber who goes by the handle ‘wow_mao.’ The documents, part of a massive trove shared on various servers, detailed the sort of things the U.S. government really does not want bouncing all over the internet—specifically, secret information about the war in Ukraine and various military and intelligence operations.

The Discord servers, which are popular with gamers, are basically internet communities where members can post messages, share videos and memes, and talk with one another. Reporters traced the intelligence documents back to a 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard named Jack Teixeira, who was sharing classified information on a Discord server called ‘Thug Shaker Central.’ The server’s name comes from a racist meme, and there was racist and antisemitic content shared in the channel, where members also bonded over guns and military gear.

On Thursday afternoon, Teixeira was arrested by the FBI. On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Shane Harris, who covers intelligence for the Washington Post, about how classified documents ended up on a corner of the internet mostly occupied by gamers. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity, and was recorded on Thursday evening.

Lizzie O’Leary: What do we know about who was on the Thug Shaker Central server?

Shane Harris: The server, kind of the group, comes together at the onset of the pandemic. And a number of the users, and we think the majority of them, are actually teenage boys. They’re kids who are cut off from their friends, they’re locked down at home. They’re feeling very isolated. And this server becomes like a pandemic refuge for them. And this guy, Teixeira, who they would refer to as OG, or the OG, kind of became the elder uncle/father figure to a lot of the young kids in this group.

Teixeira’s day job was essentially IT support for the military, and he had access to an intelligence computer system that acts like the Pentagon’s intranet. What do we know about that system?

It’s the network that, if you are on, you have access to all kinds of top-secret and sensitive information, much of which is of the kind that it looks like Teixeira was allegedly putting in this chat room.

Discord is big among gamers, but it’s not restricted to gamers. Anyone can make a Discord server, basically your own message board, where you can post things and chat by text and video. But Discord is a pretty weird place for a major intelligence leak to happen, right?

I mean, I was pretty baffled. I’ve been reporting on intelligence for, now, about 22 years—I’ve never seen a leak like this. I’ve never seen a mishandling of classified information in this way. What baffles me about it is not even so much that it was on a Discord server—that was sort of a little bit weird in its own right—but it was that, from our reporting, it doesn’t seem like Teixeira had a political ax to grind. He wasn’t leaking information to reporters. I haven’t seen any indication that he was selling it to a foreign government. He wasn’t posting it broadly for thousands of people to see. He was sharing it in this virtual clubhouse he created, where he was sort of the leader of this pack of boys, and apparently doing it to impress them.

We interviewed one of these former members at great length, and talked to another one as well, and what they described was this place where they’re all hanging out, and OG, or Teixeira, as we’re calling him now, was constantly kind of lecturing them about world affairs and seemed to really get off on this idea that he had access to special knowledge that average people didn’t. And he wanted to share it with these kids because he thought they needed it to be strong, and to be smart, and to be aware of the world around them, which I think he perceived as threatening.

What was in these documents? Why is the government so freaked out?

I divide these into a couple of categories. One, a big chunk of the documents are materials that were presented for high-level briefings of military officials, showing how the war in Ukraine is playing out—everything from casualties on both sides to the locations of Russian and Ukrainian troops, the number of Western special operations forces that are in Ukraine, the number of rockets that the Ukrainians have, the munitions levels. Some of them are about forecasts for how the war is going. And it turns out the U.S. prognosis for where the war is going is not so great for Ukraine. There’s satellite imagery of strikes by Russian missiles, stuff that is basically the kind of day-to-day, blow-by-blow of the war—but the secret version, not the kind that you generally would see on the news.

And then there are these documents that look like bulletins. You can almost think of them as a newsfeed of events all over the world. Here’s the latest in Iran. Here’s what we have out of North Korea. And some of this we can tell is coming from CIA reporting that goes out on a secure channel each day. These documents do some of the same things, only in this case they attribute it to things like intercepted communications, or images from a satellite, or a human source. This level of detail is illustrative of what the government is able to do in terms of gathering intelligence, but importantly, it’s also showing you, in some cases, how they’re doing it.

This is one of the big reasons why officials are so unnerved. It’s not so much that the world knows what they know—although in some cases, it is that. But it’s also that people are now knowing how they know it.

When did the government figure out that these documents were being posted on Discord?

Many weeks later, which is another one of the puzzling aspects of this story. These documents were on the wow_mao server, and then they start getting picked up, apparently, by others, and moved into different channels. There was a Minecraft server. They went into Twitter, to Telegram. And so it’s floating around out there, and it’s getting noticed by people in the open-source community. It eventually gets noticed by journalists at the New York Times, who, when they can look at [these documents], presumably say, ‘Oh, yeah, that kind of looks like a classified battlefield update.’ I don’t know whether the Pentagon understood because of the New York Times reporting or because of open-source reporting that this was out there. But the Times broke the big story first revealing the presence of these documents basically around the same time that the Pentagon started looking into the situation that they had on their hands.

This raises a lot of really profound questions about not only how Jack Teixeira may have been able to transmit these documents, carry them out of where he worked, but also why it took so long for officials to realize that they were in the wild. When he was sharing them in this Thug Shaker Central server, that’s kind of like a closed room. There’s not that many people in it. When they then migrate to mao_wow, they start going around much more widely, and apparently escaped notice for some weeks.

Some of these were photographs of documents. They’ve got fold marks on them. You can see the floor and maybe a kitchen counter. So it seems like Teixeira was, what, photographing them?

It looks like he printed things out and then brought them home, or to someplace that’s clearly not a workplace, and then took photographs of them. And what we do know from our reporting with people who were his friends, who hung out with him in the room, is that when he first started sharing classified information with the group last year, it wasn’t photographs of documents. It was actually transcriptions of intelligence documents that he was typing up by hand, and then kind of annotating and adding his own little explanations and commentary to it.

And he spends a lot of time apparently, by his own account, typing these things up. He’s tired, and he wants to get a reaction from the boys in the room. And it appears that most of them just aren’t that interested. There’s two or three people who kind of routinely comment on it or say, ‘Oh, how interesting.’ And the rest are off talking about games and guns and whatever. And he gets kind of annoyed by this, we’re told, and says, ‘Look, if you guys aren’t going to take the time to read these things that I’ve been posting, maybe I shouldn’t even share them at all.’ And so out of some kind of pique, or flex, or maybe just to save time, it’s not long after that he starts dropping in photographed images of the actual documents themselves.

This is all so hard to get your head around, because on the one hand, we’re talking about very sensitive classified documents. On the other hand, it sounds like boys showing off for each other.

My impression, after having spent the better part of this week reporting on this and talking to people who were involved, is that Teixeira seemed more interested in demonstrating that he had this secret knowledge: I know things that you don’t. You don’t really understand how the world works, but I know. As I was listening to some of these kids kind of tell the story of how he would talk about the government or the world, it seemed to me that he had a sort of slanted view of the world, a kind of paranoid, more conspiratorial view of what the government was all about, and that it was sinister, and that it had ill intention.

Is this the first time intelligence documents of this magnitude—or I guess intel in general—has been shared on Discord or a similar platform?

As far as I can tell, yes, and certainly in this way, where it’s just sort of passed around so casually. For some years—and I was talking to a U.S. official about this—people who work in counterintelligence, which is the area where you’re trying to prevent secrets from being stolen, have been worried, this person said, about gaming platforms being a place where spies and foreign agents might try to recruit people.

And one scenario that was spelled out for me was there was concern that Russia in particular was looking at gaming platforms—and Discord is one of those—and trying to figure out who might be a government employee, maybe who works near a government facility, who works near a military base, and then befriending those people and seeing if they might cajole them into sharing classified information. There has been one instance of, on a gaming platform, some players sharing classified schematics about, I think, tanks and weapons systems in the context of a game they were playing about tanks and weapons.

But it’s just so interesting to me that the people who worry about how secrets spill have, for some time, been looking at gaming platforms and saying, ‘Yeah, this is potentially a point of access for a foreign government. This gives us some anxiety.’

You’ve reported about the fallout for foreign relations and the intelligence community here. What’s the fallout in terms of how the government keeps things safe online?

I could imagine two scenarios. One, and I think if you’re sort of interested in the government-should-be-protecting-secrets mode, this needs to be a moment of real self-reflection. This needs to be a moment where people start saying, ‘Look, how do we lock this stuff down? Why did this guy have access? Does he really need to have that access?’

There’s a part of me, though, that thinks maybe things aren’t going to change that much.
And the reason is that what you’re seeing now in this vast intelligence system—where 21-, 22-year-old guys working in the IT room have access to these bigger computer networks—is very much an outgrowth of how the intelligence community changed after the 9/11 attacks.

Before 9/11—and this was really pointed to as one of the big causes or causal factors in 9/11—intelligence like this was siloed. The NSA knew it had what the NSA knew, and it held onto it. The CIA had the CIA’s intelligence and it held onto it. And everybody just kind of kept it in their own little boxes, and they weren’t showing it to one another. And what the 9/11 attacks showed was, like, ‘Look, unless all of you are to some degree collaborating and talking to each other, the left hand and the right hand aren’t going to know what’s going on.’

And so the thought was, we’ve got to leave this kind of need-to-know mentality in the intelligence community toward what they would call need-to-share. This became a big mantra in the years after 9/11. The idea was that we should push this intelligence out to more people, so that anybody who could benefit from it would have greater access. And when that happens, it creates more points of vulnerability. The more people who have access to stuff, the more challenges, the more chances that they’re going to share it, or see something they’re not supposed to see.

I think it’s going to be hard for the intelligence community to say, ‘Fine, let’s just go back to the way it was,’ because they’re getting a lot of benefit out of collaboration. It’s not perfect and there’s still some isolation. But the intelligence community is far more collaborative in its structure.

So this might just be the cost of doing business.

I think it might be the cost of doing business, in that what they’re going to find is somewhere in the middle, where they can say, ‘All right, we need to have sharing. We need to have access.’ Do the Teixeiras of the world need to have access to everything? Do we really need to go that far?’ And they might start calibrating.


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