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Man suspected of leaking secret US documents to appear in court

Author: Editors Desk Source: The Economist
April 14, 2023 at 06:40
20230415 USP901
20230415 USP901

His detention may not stanch the flow of secrets

In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret study of the Vietnam war, because he was outraged by America’s lies about how the conflict was going. In 2010 Chelsea Manning leaked hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and other information to WikiLeaks in protest at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three years later Edward Snowden disclosed as many as 200,000 documents from the National Security Agency (nsa) to decry the scale of the country’s electronic espionage. 

The man who is suspected of uploading hundreds of classified files over recent months to Discord, a messaging platform, appears to have done so to show off to friends on the internet. Known to his devotees as “og”, the suspect has been named by newspapers as Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old member of the intelligence wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. Mr Teixeira’s house, in a small town in Massachusetts, was surrounded by police and searched on the afternoon of April 13th. He was arrested by the fbi shortly afterwards. Merrick Garland, the attorney-general, said Mr Teixeira was arrested in connection with the “unauthorised removal, retention and transmission of classified national defence information”.

The Discord leaks have shaken America’s national-security bureaucracy. The leaker appears to have shared classified Pentagon slides and cia assessments with a tight-knit group of friends on Thug Shaker Central, a Discord server, since at least last year. The Washington Post reported that the leaker “had a dark view of the government” and fulminated over “government overreach”. He was also a gun enthusiast who used racial and anti-Semitic slurs in one video. He is reported to have told others on the group that he was a technology support staffer for the intelligence wing, which may explain why he had such wide-ranging access to highly classified information.

An initial batch of just over 50 files escaped from that server to others, and eventually to Telegram, a social-media site popular among Russians, including those tracking the war in Ukraine. Those files, which have been reviewed by The Economist, included detailed assessments of Ukraine’s armed forces, the course of the war and the effectiveness of particular American weapons there. They also included a variety of cia reports on world events, including private conversations inside allied governments, among them Israel, South Korea and Hungary.

Many include sensitive details. A slide on Western surveillance flights over the Black Sea between September and February, marked “noforn” to indicate that it cannot be shared even with America’s closest intelligence allies, shows the path taken by American, British, French and nato spy planes close to Russia-occupied Crimea. It suggests that America’s defence secretary has imposed a 40-nautical-mile “standoff” range from Crimea for such flights. It also claims that a British surveillance plane on one such mission in September was nearly shot down by a Russian jet. The incident was disclosed at the time by Britain, but in far more sanguine terms.

Another slide depicts the delivery timeline for 155mm artillery ammunition from South Korea, presumably bound for Ukraine. It suggests that over 250,000 shells will have been delivered in total—around a month’s worth of supply at present rates of fire. A separate cia report from early March describes internal deliberations from South Korea’s National Security Council, captured by signals intelligence, over whether to send ammunition via Poland. Other documents disclose sensitive capabilities, including previously unknown spy satellites and electronic intelligence-gathering that locates Russian and Ukrainian formations by their radio emissions.

All this may be only the tip of the iceberg. New files are still trickling out and “og” is said to have circulated hundreds of documents. The Washington Postsaid he first gave his friends near-verbatim summaries of intelligence reports and later on, when he felt he was not being taken seriously, photographs of actual documents. The online group, forged during the pandemic, included both Americans and foreigners, among them Ukrainians and Russians, a friend told the Post

Among the latest revelations, the Post has described American intelligence assessments of Ukraine’s forthcoming counter-offensive and the likelihood of subsequent peace talks (low), and of alleged plans by Egypt, a big recipient of American aid, to secretly supply 40,000 rockets to Russia. The Associated Press reported that Russian spies were caught boasting about their co-operation with the United Arab Emirates. The New York Times says that Russia’s fsb, a successor to the kgb, accused the defence ministry of covering up high casualties in Ukraine. And the bbc has described American accounts of private conversations involving António Guterres, the un secretary-general. 

Some governments have contested the authenticity of the documents. At least one slide was modified to underplay Russian casualties, though that seems to have occurred long after publication. “I would just urge caution,” said a Pentagon spokesman on April 10th, “as it does appear that some slides have been doctored.” South Korea said its defence minister, and that of America, had agreed that “a significant number of the relevant documents were forged”. Britain’s defence ministry said the leak “demonstrated a serious level of inaccuracy”, and that “allegations…have the potential to spread disinformation”. 

Yet America’s government is certainly acting as though the leak is real. “These slides are highly classified and contain sensitive information,” acknowledged the Pentagon spokesman. The department has tightened up its procedures, limiting the circulation of intelligence. The Department of Justice has also launched an investigation. On April 13th, during a trip to Ireland, Joe Biden, America’s president, played down the severity of the breach. “I’m concerned that it happened,” he said, “but there’s nothing contemporaneous that I’m aware of that is of great consequence.” 

If Mr Teixeira is indeed the culprit, it should not be hard to prove it. The Post’s investigation describes photos and videos of the leaker, and sites like Discord maintain records of visitors’ ip addresses. Systems used by defence and intelligence agencies typically log details of those printing out classified material, and the printouts themselves often include subtle details, some virtually invisible to the naked eye, that provide further clues. Hidden dots incriminated Reality Winner, a translator for the nsa, who leaked top-secret files to the Intercept, a news outlet, in 2017.

What punishment might then await? In “The Leaky Leviathan”, a paper for the Harvard Law Review published in 2013, David Pozen of Columbia University notes that only a dozen or so criminal cases have ever been brought against suspected leakers throughout America’s history. Leak laws are rarely enforced. But then most leaks are not so dramatic.

Ms Winner was sentenced to more than five years in prison for leaking a single report. Mr Snowden, who may have stolen as many as 1.7m documents, was hit with three charges under America’s Espionage Act, adding up to a maximum 30-year sentence. (He is now a fugitive in Russia, which granted him citizenship last year.) Mr Ellsberg faced a maximum sentence of 115 years, though the charges were later dropped. Ms Manning served seven years in prison before her sentence was commuted. The fate of the Discord leaker may depend on the damage now wrought by disclosures that he set in motion months ago, and that are only now trickling out—and into the arms of America’s adversaries.

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