5 min read
The Discord Leaks: Consequences of Jack Teixeira’s Dissemination of Classified Documents

Henry Choisser

On April 13th, Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old in the Massachusetts Air National Guard, was arrested and charged with two counts under the Espionage Act for disseminating top secret documents through a Discord server that he moderated. Although the source of America’s most consequential National Security leak in at least a decade has been found, questions still linger about the potential ramifications from the publication of some of America’s most sensitive secrets about the war in Ukraine, relations with China, and the ongoing surveillance of international allies like South Korea. 

The cache of leaked Pentagon documents illustrates the extent to which Russian security and intelligence services have been penetrated by the United States. The documents portray a Russian military bruised by 189,500-223,000 casualties that is stalling in its war against Ukraine and a military apparatus that is deeply compromised. There has been some controversy over the exact figures - as an altered version of the document surfaced showing lower casualty estimates. Some documents contain daily briefs about real-time warnings by American intelligence agencies on the timing of Moscow’s strikes and even its specific targets. 

Equally blunt was the American assessment of Ukrainian military strength, which is itself in dire straits. The leaked material outlines critical shortages of air defense munitions and 124,500 to 131,000 casualties on the Ukrainian side. 

The intelligence reports seem to indicate that the United States is also spying on Ukraine’s top military and political leaders, a reflection of Washington’s struggle to get a clear view of Ukraine’s fighting strategies. Which according to Timothy Edgar, a former national security official and current lecturer on law, is both “the good news and the bad news.” As he explains, “the Ukrainians did not share their secret war plans about the coming spring offensive, and as a result, they were not leaked. So, that’s good news. It’s also bad news, because, again, it points out that if you’re a partner and ally of the United States, then the only way you can really keep your secrets from being potentially leaked is to not share them with the Americans. And that could have big long-term implications for us.” 

Edgar’s analysis, and the purported surveillance of Ukrainian officials points out a perverse irony that defense officials have long acknowledged: The United States has a better understanding of Russian military operations than it does of Ukrainian planning. And the Teixeira leak is only going to reaffirm the belief in Kiev, and other allied capitals, that sharing strategic information with the Americans could jeopardize rather than improve your national security. 

While an interagency damage assessment is underway, it is important to examine the scope of the possible fallout. Friendly nations as nearby as Canada and distant as South Korea have had their feathers ruffled by revelations made public by the leaks. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada was put in the hot seat after his private statements among NATO leaders were made public. He informed other leaders that Canada would “never reach 2% defense spending” due to domestic constraints and the leaked assessment said “widespread defense shortfalls hinder Canadian capabilities while straining partner relationships and alliance contributions.” 

Across the Pacific, it has surfaced that American intelligence agencies have been electronically surveilling the communications of senior members of South Korean parliament. While these revelations are not surprising to government leaders, there is always a feeling of betrayal that is felt by the civilian populations of the aggrieved and spying states. As Timothy Edgar explains: “For intelligence, the circle of trust is very small. And for [the U.S.], the most important circle of trust is the Five Eyes (an intelligence sharing partnership involving five nations: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States). And if you’re not in the Five Eyes club, you’re not in the Five Eyes club and it shouldn’t shock you that the Americans may be spying on you.” 

This understanding is reflected by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s downplaying of the incident ahead of a summit with Biden - "I believe that this matter is no reason to shake the ironclad trust that supports the U.S.-South Korea alliance.” However, just because the heads of state understand these dynamics does not mean there won’t be unspoken consequences for the United States global partnerships. 

Additional repercussions from the vast array of leaked documents, (over 100 pages in total) many labeled with the highest level of government clearance - the Top Secret classification - may have very real and immediate consequences. A major aspect of the damage is going to be felt by intelligence source networks, as the information in the documents could be specific enough for foreign authorities to identify the source of their leak. For example, if sources in the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) are exposed now, it could give Moscow the ability to quarantine and eliminate those streams of information that have been vital to Ukraine’s war efforts thus far. 

Although it is hard to predict the outcome of the charges against Jack Teixeira, both because the investigation is in its preliminary stages and because of the unusual lack of ideological or moral motivation, there are a few cases that may give us insight into how it will play out.In our current legal system, defendants are incentivized to make a plea deal for a possible shorter sentence rather than face the threat they are facing under the Espionage Act, which criminalizes the “unauthorized retention and disclosure of national-security secrets”. It packs a punch of up to 10 years per charge, and each leaked document could be its own charge. That's 20 years on the table for Teixeria’s 2 current charges, with the possibility of more to come. On the other hand, plea deals in leak-related cases have typically resulted in a few years of prison. 

According to an investigation by the New York Times, in two other cases involving the leaking of archives of material rather than a discrete secret or two, prosecutors and the defendant did not reach a plea deal. 

That being said, prosecutors leading such a high profile case may be less inclined to offer an attractive plea deal to Teixeira because of the sheer scale of the documents leaked. As the case plays out in court, the number of additional charges and the terms of any plea deal offered will be dependent on the severity of the damage found by the interagency investigation. However, the U.S. government will have its own incentives to offer a splitable plea deal in order to avoid the bureaucratic complexities and obvious discomfort of openly discussing classified evidence in the courtrooms; especially since the Justice Department is unlikely to relinquish control of such a high profile case to military courts that would offer greater secrecy for prosecutors. 

To understand what that damage might look like we turn to Thomas Warrick, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and former senior counterterrorism official with the Department of Homeland Security, who said the leak was “damaging,” but could have been worse. He pointed out that many of the documents shared online were daily briefings, i.e. short form “snapshot[s]” of intelligence agencies’ current thinking. “That’s something we obviously should be concerned about.” But as time passes, he said, the relevance of those snapshots will wane and so will the damage caused by their release. 

However, this is true for most but not all of the information that was leaked. One particularly concerning section of the documents posted came from a C.I.A. daily intelligence briefing. The material in that section revealed not just who but some details on how the C.I.A. is gathering its intelligence. This particular report indicated that the C.I.A. is using intercepted communications to spy on discussions inside Russia’s MOD, possibly giving the Kremlin ways of securing those communications. 

Although Jack Teixeira told his online compatriot’s that “it's in God’s hands now”, his future currently rests in the ability of our adversaries to capitalize on his arrogance, and the terms of the plea deal that will presumably be offered to his public defenders. Even though the judge leading the preliminary hearings has delayed his ruling on whether to offer pre-trial bond to Teixeira, his messages to friends on Discord about planning to “disappear” likely undermine any chances he had of being released to his father’s custody before going to court. As does his recently discovered online obsession with school and mass shootings, and his bullheaded acquisition of semi automatic rifles despite two sequential denials of a gun license (based on a school threat related suspension he received in high school). He must tread very carefully in the proceeding months in court because he is likely facing multiple decades behind bars. Likewise, the United States must tread carefully with its allies in the wake of the Discord Leaks and make up for the damage done - especially in Ukraine.

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