The intriguing leak of classified US documents

There’s surely more than meets the eye in mainstream media’s recent accounts of how photographs of a whole bundle of highly classified United States’ intelligence files found their way into a social media platform where young people meet and discuss shared hobbies like animé, video war games, music, cryptocurrency, and the like.

The whole story has been portrayed as a surreal juxtaposition of the make-believe and the real, of the innocence of young people at play and the malicious violence and brutality of the protracted war in Ukraine. It tells of National Guard Airman Jack Douglas Teixeira, a 21-year-old Massachusetts resident working at a military base as an information technology specialist, who gains access to highly confidential intelligence reports, takes them home, photographs them in his mother’s kitchen, and posts them on his group’s chatroom to boost his bragging rights.

His chatroom buddies, who may have been arguing about Ukraine’s chances of surviving this war, are in awe of their leader’s knowledge and particularly his access to classified information on the progress of the war. And rightly so: Some of the documents are in the nature of briefings so highly confidential in nature that only a handful of officials in the US defense establishment have the requisite level of clearance to view them. Unfortunately for Airman Teixeira, some of the documents were reposted on other more popular platforms, including Twitter, where they have generated the grave attention and alarm they deserve.

Most of these classified documents are now supposed to have been deleted, but some are reportedly still available on a few online platforms. The most important of them deals with US intelligence assessment of both Ukraine’s capacity to resist and Russia’s shifting strategy. As a New York Times (NYT) report sees it, the documents “appear to show that America’s understanding of Russian planning remains extensive and that the United States is able to warn its allies about Moscow’s future operations.” (NYT, 4/8/2023)

While some US officials, past and present, have acknowledged the potential effects of the leaked documents — for example, the Russians may be expected to move quickly to unmask the sources of the intel and cut off the flow of information — skeptical observers have floated the possibility of a deliberate and controlled leak. One can only speculate what purpose such a sinister scheme might serve — but it is not farfetched to think that the intention may be to sow discord, distrust, and demoralization inside Russia’s political and military establishment.

The NYT report goes on to say: “The documents portray a battered Russian military that is struggling in its war in Ukraine and a military apparatus that is deeply compromised. They contain daily real-time warnings to American intelligence agencies on the timing of Moscow’s strikes and even its specific targets.”

The leaked documents also contain reports about US allies like South Korea having reservations about the extent of their involvement in the Ukraine effort. They confirm in effect what every government that is not willfully naive already knows: that America spies even on its own friends and allies. Given this proclivity, it knows which button to push in order to get hesitant allies on board whenever it embarks on its own adventures abroad.

As surreal as the circumstances surrounding the leak of these highly confidential US intelligence reports may be, the consequences for the suspect Jack Douglas Teixeira have been undeniably real. Following his dramatic arrest at his home in a small suburb outside Boston, the 21-year-old air guardsman has been criminally charged in federal court in Boston with two offenses: the unauthorized retention and transmission of national defense information, and the unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents. He faces a jail sentence of 10 years for each offense.

But the fact that throughout this affair he never projected himself as a whistleblower in the mold of Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning could be counted in his favor. His lawyers could harp on the image of an innocent boy barely out of his teens whose sheer love for video war games got him into trouble at work. He may yet come off with a light sentence, or, like Manning, be eventually freed.

While Teixeira has been formally charged under the Espionage Act, it is difficult to see how the court can seriously regard him as a spy. He manifestly lacks the rudimentary cunning of one. First, according to a Guardian report, he used his own name and real billing address when he opened an account on the social media platform Discord where he posted the classified documents. Second, soon after the news about the leaked documents broke out, Teixeira searched the word “leak” to check if he had been identified as the source — using his government-issued computer to do so. His frantic search was, as expected, logged in the government’s monitoring system, making it easy for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to track him down.

It is no less fascinating that while the bulk of the leaked documents has been confirmed as real, the ones referring to US allies appear to have been altered, thus giving the concerned governments enough basis to deny their authenticity. The whole thing raises questions about the nature and function of so-called information leaks. Even as America’s top officials have acknowledged the embarrassing implications of this most recent slip-up in its intelligence system, the official attitude, on the whole, has been to scoff at its broader significance. Which, of course, makes it all the more intriguing.