We’re seeing the emergence of a new type of leaker, Charlie Stevenson, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies, noted Thursday in a newsletter to friends and students.
In the past, most leaks on U.S. foreign policy have come from three sources: administration officials launching trial balloons, losers of interagency fights who want to rally fellow critics, and whistleblowers seeking to expose terrible activities.
Now, with the recent flood of highly classified leaked documents, mainly on the Ukraine war, Stevenson is seeing the rise of a fourth type: “the showoff who wants to demonstrate his inside knowledge.”
That seems to describe the man who allegedly shared at least 300 pages worth of classified Pentagon documents with friends online, identified by the New York Times as Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old airman first class (the equivalent of a private first class) in the Massachusetts Air National Guard.
The Washington Post had gone some ways toward tracking down the leaker Wednesday night, reporting that the documents posted to Discord, an online chat platform popular with gamers, originated with a “young, charismatic gun enthusiast.” Known to his online comrades as “O.G.,” the source worked at a “military base” and had been sharing classified documents with a small Discord group—roughly 25 young men—for the last few years. On Feb. 28, one of the teenage members posted several of the documents on another, much larger Discord server—and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Post didn’t identify O.G. by name, but it described a video showing him at a shooting range where he “yells a series of racial and antisemitic slurs into the camera, then fires several rounds at the target.”
Online friends of O.G., who apparently have never met him in person, told the Post that he is no sort of ideologue or whistleblower, though he has expressed dark suspicions of the U.S. government as a conspiratorial deep state.
How could this have happened? That’s the most obvious question to arise from this tale. It has long been noted that way too many people have security clearances granting them access to highly classified documents. But Teixeira seems more than a little unstable. Doesn’t anyone do psychiatric checks anymore? And some of his techniques—taking paper documents back to his home, photographing them with his phone, then emailing the files to his pals—should have been fairly easy to block. Doesn’t anyone inspect briefcases at the exits of sensitive military bases anymore?
More to the point, why does anyone, even an intelligence officer, at the Massachusetts Air National Guard, need to know any of the information said to be contained in these leaks—crucial information about Ukrainian munitions supplies, intercepts of communications inside the Kremlin and the Russian military command, U.S. spying on allies such as South Korea, and other secrets that deserve to be kept secret?
The dilemma about classified information is that it needs to be tightly controlled in order to keep it secret—but it also needs to be shared in order to make it useful. OK. But really, I seriously doubt that the Massachusetts National Guard has a need to know.
Actually, though, the bigger wonder is that this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often. Over the years, probably lots of people with security clearances have let spouses or good friends take a glance at some Top Secret document they’ve managed to sneak home. But usually that’s the end of the indiscretion. In the internet age, the secret-sharing can spread to the earth’s farthest corners, as O.G. discovered, to his “frantic” dismay.
In any case, O.G. seems to be no Daniel Ellsberg, who copied and leaked the Pentagon Papers with the aim of stopping the Vietnam War, even if doing so meant going to jail. (The federal judge dismissed the charges after President Richard Nixon tried to interfere with the trial.) Nor does he seem to be a Snowden, who was trying to alert the public to the NSA’s domestic surveillance (though Snowden fled, first to Hong Kong, then to Moscow, where he is now a Russian citizen).
No, as Stevenson observes, O.G. seems simply to have wanted to show his bros how much secret stuff he knew and to make them feel mighty by letting them know, too. “It felt like I was on top of Mount Everest,” one of O.G.’s cronies said of receiving his document dumps. “I felt like I was above everyone else to some degree and that … I knew stuff that they didn’t.”
Highly classified documents can do that to people, all the more so to people desperate to seem special in the eyes of their peers. Should we be surprised that there aren’t more O.G.s out there—or are there more O.G.s and we just don’t know it?