Discord Leak: If You See One Flea, The Whole House Is Infested
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That’s what the vet told Tracy and me when we took our newly adopted stray cat, Graycie, to get checked out recently.
It’s also the policy that is being followed, or should be, by the Pentagon and military leaders in Ukraine since the Discord leaks were discovered on April 6. By that time, some of the top secret documents had been available online through various sites for at least a month and a half. In other words, the fleas, the leaked secrets, had already infected the Pentagon’s and the nation’s entire house of intelligence and intelligence gathering.
Even now that we know the identity of who we might call the Leaker in Chief, Airman First Class Jack Teixeira, there are a lot of questions about the leaks still to be answered: how much damage did the leaks do to U.S. national security? Given that most of the leaks had to do with Ukraine’s war against Russian aggression, how much damage was done to Ukraine’s war effort? How much did the leaks damage the U.S. efforts to supply Ukraine with weapons and intelligence? Is any of the damage done to U.S. intelligence gathering irreversible? Did the leaks cause any Ukrainian deaths on the battlefield? How deeply penetrated by Russian intelligence was the Discord server used to distribute the secret documents?
Let’s take the questions in reverse order. We’ll start with Marcy Wheeler’s observation on her blog “Emptywheel” that “you can’t always tell who’s in a chatroom.” The early reporting on the leaks said that the Discord chat group included about 25 members, most of them young white American males who shared an interest in guns, video games, and Christianity. We now know that assessment severely understated the situation. An affidavit filed by an FBI agent in support of the FBI search warrant for the Teixeira home said there were “approximately 50 members” of “Server 1” on the social media platform Discord used by Teixeira to distribute the stolen documents.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the members of Teixeira’s group were far more Russia-friendly than had been previously known. Teixeira’s “friends posted slurs against minority communities, Ukrainians and pretty much everyone else. Everyone, that is, except Russians.” Members of the group, according to theJournal, “admired President Vladimir Putin’s regime and its war on Ukraine.”
This becomes especially important when you realize the route the documents took as they spread through the internet. Aric Toler, writing for the website Bellingcat, reported that the earliest documents moving on Russian Telegram channels had March dates, but he had “seen evidence that some documents dated to January could have been posted online even earlier.” The stolen secret documents with early March dates were first posted in Discord chatrooms “focused on the Minecraft computer game and fandom for a Filipino YouTube celebrity.”
Who knows who saw those computer game sites and YouTube celebrity sites? Even if you come up with a list of the members of the Discord chatrooms, including the openly racist “Thug Shaker Central” room established by Teixeira that is said to have had Russian and Ukrainian members, nobody will ever know who was literally looking over the shoulders of the members as they perused the top secret documents.
From those unlikely locales, the documents “spread to other sites such as the imageboard 4Chan before appearing on Telegram, Twitter and then major media publishers around the world in recent days,” according to Bellingcat. The confusing nature of the way the documents, many of which were pages and slides of briefing documents for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appearing on the internet caused conflicting speculation about what was behind the leak. Bellingcat reported that an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zellensky went on his Telegram channel to speculate that Russia was behind the leak. On the other end of the speculation spectrum, a poster on a pro-Russia Telegram channel claimed the documents could be “Western disinformation.”
At any point along what might be called the chain of custody, or chain of distribution of the top secret documents, Russian intelligence could have been, and very probably was, looking at the documents and watching both the U.S. and Ukrainian reaction to the leaks. Some of the documents were said to have revealed the extent to which U.S. intelligence has penetrated the Russian FSB and military intelligence, which had to have been of great interest to the Russians. They could have, and probably did, immediately move to plug the sources of the leaks in their intelligence networks. If any of the western penetration involved human beings, after being interrogated in Lubyanka, they are probably dead by now.
The next question is how much damage could the leaks have done to the Ukrainian war effort? Some of the leaked documents contained information and maps about Ukrainian positions around Bakhmut on February 24. Another map showed Ukrainian positions within the city limits of Bakhmut in early March. Matt Tait, on his Substack, “PWNAllTheThings,” pointed out that if commanders of Russian artillery batteries around Bakhmut had had the maps in real time, “Russia could have killed a lot of Ukrainians.” But because the documents did not reach the Discord distribution network early enough, they were not usable for targeting purposes.
More dangerous were maps showing “detailed air-defense locations in Ukraine, down to the types, locations, and effective range of the equipment,” according to Tait. Because Ukrainian air defenses are almost all mobile, that leak probably didn’t do the damage it could have if it had been available to Russians in real time.
More leaked documents revealed “detailed schedules and plans for Ukraine’s Spring counteroffensive,” according to Tait’s reporting. “By colossal luck, the documents became public at the tail end of this schedule, depriving Russia of most of the value they contain,” Tait said.
The biggest problem for the Russians was the nature of the leaked secrets. They were from briefing books intended for four star generals in the Pentagon, and because of that fact, they were far-removed from the kind of battlefield intelligence that would be most useful to the enemy.
The questions of how much the leaks damaged Ukraine’s war plans and U.S. efforts to support Ukraine are answered at least in part by the discussions above: very little, because of their lack of timeliness in the case of battlefield intelligence, and not much when the secrets involved resupply efforts, again because by the time the leaks occurred, much of the supplies had been delivered.
But the issue of whether they are irreversible is a more difficult one to answer. Some sources and methods were “burned” by the leaks, especially those involving the penetration of Russian intelligence. It will be hard to replace those sources, even if they involved electronic data collection by the National Security Agency, because the Russians can change the encryption they use, or they can shut down altogether ways they were using to transmit battlefield data and switch to more basic methods such as information written out on paper or exchanged face-to-face.
But as we’ve seen from reporting about the war up until this point, the Russians were already making gross errors in their war, such as commanders using cellphones that allowed Ukraine to geo-locate and kill them. The use of cellphones down in the ranks, which the Russians have permitted either intentionally or by not preventing it in the first place, is almost as problematic. Geo-locating those cell phones can pin-point Russian positions, and overhearing the conversations using electronic means can provide even more intelligence about unit strengths, ammunition supplies, morale among soldiers, and more.
It's when you step back and look at the fact of the leaks that the flea analogy really comes into play. If one member of an Air National Guard unit has been on Discord and 4chan spreading secrets to his buddies, thus making them available to the nation’s enemies, how many more soldiers, sailors, or airmen could be getting on gamer chatrooms or Discord channels and doing the same thing?
Given as little control as there is about what Americans, including the members of our military, can freely access on the internet, the Pentagon faces two real problems. One, investigating the leaks, and two, preventing them in the future. There are free speech issues even with members of the military involved in access to what’s on the internet. Banning access to websites is analogous to banning books. The Right is all for banning books about kids having two fathers or how being trans is more than playing dress-up, but even some conservatives are having problems with the idea of banning TikTok.
And besides, the whole idea of banning stuff on the internet has the classic whack-a-mole problem. Even if the Pentagon had found out about the leaker’s Thug Shaker Central channel on Discord and shut it down, the documents were already out there flying around on Filipino YouTube celebrity sites and Russian Telegram channels that the U.S. would have far more difficulty shutting down.
Suffice to say that what the Pentagon is dealing with really is a fully infested house. We asked our vet what you’d have to do if you discovered that you had a flea infestation, and he described a process that would take months, beginning with treating the cats and dog and killing the fleas on them, and then waiting until the rest of the fleas infesting the house die off, little by little, as they lack a host to feed on so they can lay eggs and birth new little fleas.
“But there’s really no way to kill all the fleas short of a nuclear bomb,” he said.
In other words, the fact that Teixeira can be prosecuted and imprisoned is of limited effectiveness. The websites infecting our intelligence community are still out there.
The Big Dogs at the Pentagon are in for a lot of scratching, that’s for sure.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.
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