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Pentagon leak makes Ukraine change plans, reveals intel community vulnerability

by Igor Kossov April 14, 2023 7:05 PM 8 min read
The photo illustration created on April 13, 2023, shows the suspect, national guardsman Jack Teixeira, reflected in an image of the Pentagon in Washington, DC. (Photo by Stefani REYNOLDS / AFP via Getty Images)
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A leak of hundreds of classified U.S. documents, noticed by the media last week, surprised the world with their incredibly granular details about the war in Ukraine.

Some writers have called it the leak of the decade. Intelligence scholar Thomas Rid wrote that it was in the top five leaks of the century. Others, like defense scholar Phillips O’Brien, think predictions of the leak’s impact on the battlefield are overblown.

The exciting part about this leak is its freshness. The documents are relatively recent; they reveal what the U.S. knows of Ukraine's military buildup, its ammo acquisitions and expenditures, how totally U.S. intelligence has penetrated Russia, how the U.S. keeps tabs on allies, the Pentagon’s pessimism about the counteroffensive, and a lot of other information Ukraine and its allies would prefer to keep hidden. But the documents also portray Russia’s military to be in a woeful state.

According to investigations by leading outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post and Bellingcat, this wasn’t the work of an external or internal enemy — it was a lot dumber than that.

They write that the documents may have been leaked by 21-year-old Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, a systems specialist with the rank of Airman First Class, who somehow had access to top secret data and used it to impress his friends on Discord.

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A major U.S. intelligence leak exposed very detailed reports about Ukraine and its war effort. The documents detail the strength of Ukraine’s counteroffensive buildup, the U.S.’s doubt that it will go very far, Ukraine’s approaching vulnerability to air attacks, the sad state of the Russian

He allegedly leaked this information to the people that hung out in his Discord chat server, called Thug Shaker Central, where he allegedly went by O.G. Interviews with members of the group said he was popular and respected in his online group where he was the cool, fit, put-together man with the privileged information from the National Guard.

Teixeira was arrested on April 13 in a Massachusetts home. On April 14, he was charged with with retention of defense information, willful control of classified documents which can land him in jail for up to 15 years. He did not enter a plea and remains detained pending a hearing. Thug Shaker Central (which may have had other names too) was deleted before that.

According to the user interviews, this Discord server was mainly about discussing guns, military gear, God and making jokes, some of them racist. The chatters were reportedly close after spending so much online time with each other.

A member said O.G. was no whistleblower, just someone with insider knowledge, who railed against government overreach and said the intelligence community is concealing terrible truths from the public, like knowing about a shooting in advance and choosing not to stop it. He was reportedly also serious about his Christian faith and talked about God, as well as guns and secret U.S. intelligence.

“When we think about drivers of leaks or insider threats being ideology, ego or greed, we probably thought of those things as being more expansive and international and grand in scale,” said Gavin Wilde, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The ego and the community that this person was trying to impress was very small, niche, very isolated from a lot of the bigger geopolitical, ideological and media aspects we tend to associate with leaks.”

The suspect’s profile may fit a trend, said Rid, an intelligence scholar at John Hopkins University.

“That this is an individual who appears to be a radical far right conspiracy theorist... points to a bigger problem,” he said. “Not just of extremism in the armed forces but society in general.”

The alleged leaker’s documents looked like folded printouts. He reportedly began by transcribing the classified information over to electronic text, members of his server told journalists. At some points, he began uploading the image files, which were more eye-catching. The Washington Post reported that 25 permanent users had access to the chat where these files were posted.

According to interviews, O.G. enjoyed the respect of the people in the chat thanks to him being older, having insider knowledge and a position of authority. When he felt they were growing uninterested in his work with the classified documents, he got frustrated, the Washington Post’s source told them. This is when a greater volume of documents was uploaded as images.

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At some point, a member of O.G.’s server posted some of the documents in a different chat for fans of Wow Mao, a Youtuber who makes meme videos about geopolitics. From there, it made its way to other servers, surfacing in one about Minecraft. Over the next month, Telegram and 4chan picked up the partial collections of files and the media and intelligence services noticed.  

It’s unclear who’s seen the documents or has the complete package. The Washington Post says it has over 300 pages, which is the largest collection claimed.

The subject of Ukraine predominates in many of the documents. Statements by defense officials, the intelligence community’s reaction and expert consensus suggest that most are authentic.

But at least one document has been crudely altered to inflate Ukraine’s casualties and deflate Russia’s. It’s unclear how many of the document images were also modified.

Implications for US, Ukraine

If Teixeira, O.G. and the person who leaked the files are one and the same, it might speak to a shift in motivations.

With previous leakers, “their motivations, even if we knew what they were, were very very different,” Rid said, when asked if other people with clearance might follow suit. “But given the ideological turn we’re looking at here that is coming alive in those Discord channels I could imagine some form of copycat” leaker being possible in the future.

The scandal is a reminder that the Pentagon is very leaky, as people with knowledge of it had told the Kyiv Independent.

“We’ve done a good job of making this intelligence community more unified and more able to collaborate with one another but that also means that there are demands for easier sharing and more timely and convenient sharing and I think some of those practical steps to make this more secure will be needed,” said Wilde.

These steps include a reevaluation of paper use, printing privileges and security checks in secure facilities, which may impose more time constraints in a field where haste is important.

More broadly, experts said the U.S. intelligence community clings to old attitudes and an outdated conceptual infrastructure for exchanging information. For example, the current incentive structure pushes people towards classifying everything, which devalues the concept and makes the system unwieldy.

Ukraine seems to acknowledge the risk, previously comparing Washington to a “sieve” and may have taken precautions. According to the New York Times, “the United States has a clearer understanding of Russian military operations than it does of Ukrainian planning.”

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This could mean that data about Ukraine comes with error bars big enough to matter. O’Brien, a professor at the University of St Andrews, pointed out that the information in the leaked briefings is largely intelligence estimates and are not the gospel truth.

But the U.S. knows a lot about Russia. The documents show that Russian state agencies have been thoroughly compromised to the point where the U.S. can know about attacks ahead of time and provide briefings to Ukrainians. Intelligence experts said any leaks are bad for intelligence gathering but Russia has demonstrated very poor control over its security.

“I don’t think Russia needed the leaks to understand that they are an open book to American intelligence,” said Rid. “They might be able to narrow down the lines of communication Americans have access to but I would be surprised if this affected America’s ability to gather information. They seem to be thoroughly owned by the U.S.”

While the U.S. has treated the leak as authentic, Ukrainian officials initially dismissed or cautioned against accepting it. Zelensky’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said "If the enemy has information about the supplies and plans of our soldiers, he would pretend that he does not know anything about it... It is a bluff, dust in the eyes."

“It is very important to remember that in recent decades, the most successful operations of the Russian special services have been carried out in Photoshop,” Andriy Yusov, the representative of the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Main Directorate. Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said: “The modern war is primarily an information war... We must be critical of any information.”

The revelation that the U.S. spies on its allies were not really revelations, since most allies and partners know they spy on each other. Rid said that under some performative outrage, their strong relations will endure. Marc Polymeropoulos, a former Europe and Eurasian affairs chief at the CIA, told Yahoo news that the notion that this would hurt intelligence sharing is “bullshit” and that Washington has muddled through far worse breaches.

The U.S. has also been spying on Zelensky – one report said he was considering hitting Russian territory. The U.S. also made contingency plans for extreme scenarios such as Zelensky’s death, as well as Putin’s. But experts said, Zelensky administration has bigger things to worry about than an ally’s surveillance.

Nevertheless, unnamed sources were cited in the media that Ukrainian officials are deeply frustrated with the leak. U.S. Defense Minister Lloyd Austin said he spoke to the Ukrainians of the leaks on April 13 and to allies to “reassure them about our own commitment to safeguarding intelligence.”

Zelensky told CNN that Ukraine was already changing its military plans because of the leak.

“This is probably something for history books to see how this episode impacted, if at all, Ukraine’s counteroffensive and Russia’s efforts against it,” said Wilde.


Note from the author:

Hi, this is Igor Kossov, I hope you enjoyed reading our article.

I consider it a privilege to keep you informed about one of this century's greatest tragedies, Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. With the help of my colleagues, I will continue to bring you in-depth insights into Ukraine's war effort, its international impacts, and the economic, social, and human cost of this war. But I cannot do it without your help. To support independent Ukrainian journalists, please consider becoming our patron. Thank you very much.

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