Why Discord is at the heart of a major US intelligence leak (2024)

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A military intelligence breach is being blamed on users of popular gaming platform Discord, after classified documents were uploaded there and disseminated widely across the internet. The person who allegedly uploaded those sensitive materials has since been identified, in part thanks to another gaming platform, Steam, and arrested under the Espionage Act.

The FBI arrested 21-year-old Jack Teixeira on Thursday in connection to an investigation into the leak of classified military documents that spread on social media earlier in April. Teixeira is a United States guardsman with an intelligence division of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, according to the New York Times. He was charged in Boston on Friday with two counts in violation of the Espionage Act: the unauthorized retention and transmission of national defense information and the unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents. Teixeira could face up to 15 years in prison, the BBC reported.

Teixeira allegedly published snapshots of printed classified briefings on a small Discord server called Thug Shaker Central, where roughly two dozen members, including teenagers, posted racist memes and talked about guns and video games like Call of Duty and Halo, according to research and training director Aric Toler of investigative collective Bellingcat. (Toler said on Twitter that Teixera’s Steam account, which led to him being identified, showed Arma 3, PUBG: Battlegrounds, Garry’s Mod, Counter-Strike, and Hearts of Iron 4.)

U.S. government officials have confirmed the authenticity of the majority of the documents, which detail strategy around the Russian war on Ukraine and other sensitive information about Canada, South Korea, Israel, Egypt, and other countries. Some of the documents include information dated to February, meaning they are quite timely. Teixeira had allegedly been posting these documents as far back as December.

Those documents had been sitting on Discord for months, spread between a few different servers, Bellingcat reported earlier in April. Teixeira first published the documents on the small Thug Shaker Central server, according to the Washington Post, before a teenager in the group leaked them on a separate Discord server of a YouTube creator called wow_mao. Ten of those documents were also published on the Minecraft Earth Map server, where they spread to thousands of its members and, a month later, were discovered by the U.S. government through social media. The leak has thrust Discord, typically associated with gaming communities, into the spotlight.

What does Discord have to do with the leak?

Discord as a company has very little, if anything, to do with this. People are free to create and operate Discord servers without permission from the company; people use the platform for a variety of reasons. Discord servers are social hubs often built around topics and people. Some people have Discord servers used solely to communicate with small groups of friends while playing video games. Other servers have thousands of members united around individual Twitch streamers or video games. The Minecraft Earth Map server, where the classified documents ended up, has thousands of members interested in high-quality Minecraft maps.

Discord as a platform, while largely associated with gamers, spread into the mainstream during the COVID-19 pandemic; it’s an easy, free way to keep in touch and share information with people. Discord says it has 150 million monthly active users, with roughly 19 million active servers per week. The chat platform features text, video, and voice-based chat, and people can even livestream video games and other media to each other. Because the servers are largely private, it’s up to moderators and creators to regulate what goes on in their spaces. This means that Discord servers can easily become places for bad actors who, at best, post tasteless jokes and, at worst, detail racist ideology by a teenager who would inflict tragedy on a Buffalo community.

Discord does enforce community guidelines to ensure the safety of its users, something it’s highlighted in transparency reports. But with millions of users, things can slip through as Discord figures out how to proactively enforce its rules rather than reactively. That’s how Teixeira was able to share so many documents online without much notice until they spread elsewhere; originally, he published the documents to a relatively small group. Members of the Thug Shaker Central Discord community, where Teixeira went by the handle “OG,” communed there because of their mutual interest in guns, video games, and military equipment, the Post reported.

Why Discord is at the heart of a major US intelligence leak (1) Image: Discord

Discord said in an emailed statement to Polygon that it has cooperated with officials and will continue to as the investigation continues. Its full statement follows:

We are aware that law enforcement officials have arrested the individual accused of illegally posting classified material on our platform. We have cooperated with officials and remain committed to doing so as this investigation continues. While Discord places a premium on the privacy of our users, we believe that our platform best serves the needs of all when we collectively engage in responsible online behavior. Our Terms of Service expressly prohibit using Discord for illegal or criminal purposes, which includes the sharing of documents on Discord that may be verifiably classified.

When Discord’s Trust and Safety team learns of violative content, we act quickly to remove it. In this instance, we have banned users involved with the original distribution of the materials, deleted content deemed to be against our Terms, and issued warnings to users who continue to share the materials in question.

What do the leaked documents contain?

Originally, it was thought that the leak contained only information about Russia’s war on Ukraine, but there are other documents that include “sensitive briefing material on Canada, China, Israel and South Korea, in addition to the Indo-Pacific military theater and the Middle East,” according to The New York Times.

The Times has a detailed breakdown of the contents of the documents, of which there are at least a hundred. One document, the paper said, includes different scenarios that could impact the Russian war on Ukraine, including predictions about what would occur if either Russian President Vladimir Putin or Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky died. The Times reported that the leak is seemingly a confirmation that “the United States spies on allies and adversaries alike,” which may impact the country’s relationship with its allies.

Other documents discuss South Korea’s apparent fear that the U.S. could “divert South Korean arms to Kyiv”; explore “scenarios that could lead Israel to provide weapons to Ukraine”; and suggest Israel’s foreign intelligence service “may have encouraged the agency’s staff and Israeli citizens to participate in the antigovernment protests that roiled the country in March,” per the Times story.

Several documents were later doctored to change information regarding the war in Ukraine — specifically, to inflate casualties in Ukraine and to lower them for Russia, according to the Times. The Pentagon hasn’t outright verified that they are authentic, but said that some “contain sensitive and highly classified material.” The Pentagon is still working through the documents, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told press.

The accuracy of the intelligence of the documents is unverified. Department of Defense press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder said at a news conference Thursday that the breach was a violation of the United States’ security guidelines to keep sensitive information safe. “This was a deliberate criminal act,” he said.

President Biden told press Thursday that he was “not concerned” by the information disclosed from the leak, despite the top-secret nature of the documents. Still, the information from the leak required Teixeira to have top-secret clearance; the 102nd Intelligence Wing that Teixeira was assigned to is responsible for packaging “intelligence from various sources” for global senior military leaders, according to a CNN source. Teixeira wasn’t working directly with the intelligence, CNN said, but required the clearance to work on the networks the department used to store the information.

“People who sign agreements to be able to receive classified documents acknowledge the importance to the national security of not disclosing those documents — and we intend to send that message, how important it is to our national security,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said during a press conference on Friday.

How did authorities find the leaker?

We don’t yet know how the government found Teixeira, but the Times detailed the “trail of digital evidence” that linked the airman to the leaked documents. Many of the leaked documents were photographs of printed paper, and those often showed details in the background. The Times was able to find a Steam profile linked to Teixeira’s name; from there, it found an Instagram profile with photos of Teixeira’s childhood home. The countertop shown in the photographs matched the countertop the leaked documents were photographed on.

Why Discord is at the heart of a major US intelligence leak (2) Photo: Kylie Cooper for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Several members of the Thug Shaker Central Discord group spoke to the press, but both the Times and the Post said the members didn’t give up Teixeira’s name.

New court documents said the FBI used billing records from Discord to find Teixeira, the Associated Press reported. The FBI got Teixeira’s Discord username from an unnamed source, the court documents said, which the person said started posting classified information around December. Teixeira’s name and address were both associated with his Discord account. The FBI arrested Teixeira on Thursday at a home in North Dighton, Massachusetts. He was arraigned in court the following day in Boston.

Has this happened before?

This is not the first time that government military secrets have been leaked on gaming forums. In fact, fans of the free-to-play combat simulator War Thunder are known for this, specifically for leaking information to win arguments between players. In January, a War Thunder player posted a user manual for an F-16A fighter jet called the Fighting Falcon, a model that had just been added to the game. A day after, someone posted restricted information on the McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet. Last year, a user posted official documents relating to a Chinese anti-tank weapon. Before that, it was the United Kingdom’s Challenger 2 battle tank that was leaked, followed by the French Leclerc battle tank.

Developer Eagle Dynamics, known for its Digital Combat Simulator games, came under fire in 2019, too, after a Russian employee was charged with conspiracy and smuggling for using the DCS World forum to get help shipping F-16 manuals out of the U.S.

Why Discord is at the heart of a major US intelligence leak (2024)

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