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No. 82: How Some Alt Right Gamers Blew Up US Diplomacy

April 13, 2023 3:14 p.m.

Yesterday, The Washington Post gave us our first view into the whys and hows and whos behind what is emerging as one of the biggest leaks of U.S. classified intelligence in decades. Below I discuss several things that just didn’t fit about the original story. Could the young mastermind of the online chat group who surfaced the documents really be who and what he claimed: a right-wing gun enthusiast in his early 20s who was a member of the U.S. military? And if he had so freely shared details about his identity with teenage followers in the U.S. and abroad, how was it he hadn’t already been arrested?

In the hours since I wrote the commentary below the story has moved swiftly. The apparent leaker is a 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts National Guard working nights at Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod. His name is Jack Teixeira and as I write a squad of FBI agents has begun searching his home in North Dighton, Massachusetts.

Questions still abound.

We know from the Manning and Snowden episodes that low-level members of the military and contractors can have access to a vast scope of highly classified material. But some of the material leaked in this case included briefing materials prepared for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Could a junior air guardsman have access to such materials?

Is Teixeira’s group another example of far-right groups existing within or infiltrating the U.S. military? Is he tied to others?

Assuming Teixeira was working alone, does the U.S. government need to rethink how it segmented and guards its secrets? Some of the biggest lessons of 9/11 had to do with the siloing of U.S. intelligence. No one could connect the dots because one dot was in one silo and the second was in another. The big focus was breaking down silos. But a central tenet of all intelligence work is access on a need-to-know basis and segmentation of access. The security of U.S. intelligence work can’t be dependent on the weak link of one disaffected 21 year old.

I know, for instance, that the California National Guard has worked for years on training the Ukrainian military. That’s a good reason why members of the California Guard might have access to a lot of intelligence tied to Ukraine. Maybe the Massachusetts Guard is doing similar work. Or maybe they’re involved with a different part of the world. But this leak seemed to have stuff from lots of different parts of the world. It’s hard to explain why the kind of person Teixeira seems to be would have access to so much or be able to take so many cell phone photos of such material over weeks and months or longer.

As I said, this story will move rapidly. These are some of the questions to keep in mind.

The Surreal, Absurd and Possibly True Story of the Latest Classified Leak

Originally Published: April 13, 2023 11:04 a.m.

Late yesterday evening, The Washington Post published the first detailed look at just how the currently unfolding and massive leak of classified U.S. intelligence happened. It’s an almost literally incredible story and some of it does strain credulity. The gist of the story is that an early-to-mid 20s member of the U.S. military with wide-ranging access to highly classified intelligence set up a Discord chat group made up of pandemic-bored gamers in which he operated as something between a guru and a cult leader. The group was a few dozen men, many of them teens and some from abroad. The Post describes him as a “young, charismatic gun enthusiast.”

He sketched out a quasi-paranoid anti-statist worldview, and mixed garden variety far-right and racist memes with emotional support and guidance. Gun worship was also central. He claimed to be able to foretell events and in some cases appeared able to do so. At the center of his enterprise was sharing classified material, which, over the last month, started spreading from the original Discord server and shaking up international relations around the world. The classified documents were the validator of his inside status, his role at the center of the overbearing American state. In a sense he was running his own private Q cult, with a small group of bored-depressed gamer teens. Only in this case, “OG,” as he was called in this tiny community, really did have access to some of the U.S. government’s most closely guarded secrets.

If this sounds unreal, you’ve got it about right. One surreal passage in the Post story describes getting the permission of the parents of one of its sources since the source is still a minor and apparently came into “OG’s” orbit as a young teen.

On its face it seems very hard to believe that someone in their early-to-mid 20s working at a military base somewhere in the U.S. could possibly have access to such a wide-ranging array of super-classified material. But the Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden cases make clear that this is possible. Intelligence and military professionals tell us there are likely thousands of people who meet this description and have such access. So that is credible and points to some pretty basic problems with how the U.S. government guards its secrets. Yes, there’s lots of over-classification. But this material is definitely stuff that the government would never want shared publicly and for good reason.

If you’re saying, WTF?, all I can say is read the piece. It’s stunning.

But there’s a lot here that doesn’t quite compute.

Two key points jump out to me. They’re closely related and include a tension that must, and I suspect will, be resolved in short order. According to the sources the Post spoke to, “OG” showed the members his picture, identified the military base he works at, spoke to them in his own voice. If I’m understanding the article, he also shared videos of himself shooting firearms and on his base. Another researcher/reporter last night on Twitter said he’d spoken to the same source the Post spoke to in the previous 36 hours. So these sources are apparently not hard to find. They’re talking. They claim to have lots of information about who “OG” is. By their description “OG” also seems to have left lots of digital fingerprints.

In other words, based on the article, you’d have to expect federal officers will be rolling up at the doorstep of basically everyone involved later today or tomorrow at the latest. That’s if these people who are talking to the Post and others really have as much information on who leaked these documents as they say.

But there’s a different possibility. Reading most of the Post piece I was surprised that everyone involved took “OG’s” claimed identity so much at face value. In key ways this sounds like a foreign intelligence operation, with a clear cover story — though there are some parts that don’t totally fit in that regard. Alternatively it could be some domestic group or more prosaically just someone in the U.S. government/military who, quite understandably, operated with a cover story to keep his true identity secret.

This is my point. If “OG” was really telling these kids and guys who he was this case is going to get solved really, really fast. It’s surprising it wasn’t already. But with the information in this article it should unfold quickly. If it doesn’t, it’s clear “OG” wasn’t leveling about who he really was, which frankly would be about the least surprising thing in the world.

Something doesn’t fit. And what that is should become clear in short order.

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