The cluelessness of the American state
How did the state secrets of this mighty, imperial power end up on a Minecraft forum?
The content of hundreds of highly classified US intelligence documents has bubbled up to the surface over the past month. Among a vast array of other spying tidbits, these slides and briefing materials expose highly sensitive details about battlefield operations in Ukraine, the dysfunction of the Russian state, the politics of Israel’s security forces and Turkey’s diplomatic game-playing.
Yet, despite the amount that’s been leaked, the leaks lack any sort of purpose or point. Indeed, the so-called Pentagon Leaks could hardly be more different to the other significant leaks of classified documents over the past half a century. Those previous leaks were all informed, to some degree, by a political motive. In 1971, defence analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers. He set out to expose the extent to which the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations had misled Americans about the Vietnam War. In 2010, US soldier Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning provided Wikileaks with 700,000 military secrets to expose the brutality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in 2013, IT contractor Edward Snowden released over a million documents from the National Security Agency to expose the scale of the US state’s domestic-surveillance regime. Each of these past leakers, for all their differences, were politically driven. They wanted to publicise what they saw as the state’s hidden wrongdoing.
That does not seem to be the case here. The alleged leaker, 21-year-old Jack Teixeira, was a low-ranking IT specialist with the air national guard in Massachusetts. If reports are to be believed, he was not especially politically motivated. He seems to have had no real interest in exposing something secret to his fellow citizens.
That’s why the classified documents weren’t leaked to the press, or indeed to any other public forum. Instead, they were leaked, from December onwards, to a small, private group of about 20 to 30 young men on Discord, a social-media platform popular with gamers. Allegedly, Teixeira’s main motivation was to show off – to try to impress this select group of nerdy mates with proof that he knew some really, really important stuff.
If it weren’t for the other members of Teixeira’s Discord group, ‘Thug Shaker Central’, it’s unlikely we’d know of the Pentagon Leaks at all. It was one or two of these Discord users who effectively publicised the leaks, reposting the documents to larger groups. One of these Discord groups was focussed on the kids’ videogame, Minecraft, and another on a Filipino YouTube celebrity. From there, the leaks found their way to Telegram and Twitter, before being eventually picked up by mainstream media outlets.
This is why the leaks are so diffuse and so random. The passage of this classified intelligence into the public realm has been almost without intention or purpose. Teixeira and his fellow forum members don’t seem to have been all that interested in the intelligence itself. ‘Here, have some leaked documents’, one teenaged ‘Thug Shaker Central’ member typed as he left some of the classified records in a Minecraft forum. ‘Nice’, responded another user. It’s a tellingly inane exchange. They sound like they’re discussing the latest Warhammer models, rather than state secrets. It shows how little meaning those involved attributed to the leaks.
As for the leaks themselves, some striking details have certainly been revealed – though not nearly as much as the folk over on ‘anti-war’ (or rather, anti-Ukraine) Twitter would have you believe. They claim the leaks expose the hidden depths of the Western involvement in the war in Ukraine, as well as the military difficulties of Ukrainian forces. But much of what the leaks reveal about Ukraine has been widely suspected – or even known – for some time. The leaks claim that up to 50 UK special forces have been in the country this year. But it’s public knowledge that British troops have been deployed there (in a training capacity) for nearly a decade. As for claims that the leaks show Ukraine is not doing as well as Western governments would have us believe, is that really blowing anyone’s mind? Journalists have already been reporting on Ukrainian ammunition running low – and few now expect Ukraine’s spring offensive to deliver a decisive victory. Arguably, the intelligence leaks paint a more damning picture of the state of Russian operations, from internecine squabbling within the highest ranks of government to the heavy toll the war has exerted on the Russian military.
In the end, if the Pentagon Leaks shed light on anything, it’s not on the war in Ukraine – it’s on the dysfunction and incompetence of the American state. After all, why was the immature Teixeira, a junior reservist airman in Cape Cod, given access to a range of highly classified intelligence in the first place? There was no reason he was required to be up-to-date on the state of Ukraine’s munitions, or on the political machinations of the Egyptian government.
The Pentagon Leaks have shown that the US state is apparently incapable of maintaining state secrecy, of distributing information on a purely ‘need to know’ basis. Indeed, Teixeira is just one of a reported 1.25million US citizens who are now authorised to access top-secret information. All of these people could have found out and shared what Teixeira did, should they have wanted to.
Part of the reason for this, as other commentators have noted, is that reams of seemingly mundane intelligence are now classified as ‘Top Secret’, almost for the sake of it. This leads to hundreds of thousands of people being granted security clearance to access it. In turn, they can also access genuinely sensitive intelligence documents. This is almost an invitation to leaks.
This supposedly mighty, imperialistic nation cannot even keep its state secrets off of Minecraft forums. Indeed, the FBI only arrested Teixeira after the press unmasked him first. This is the real message of this story: that the American state has no idea what it is doing. But then again, as with so much else in the Pentagon Leaks, this is nothing we didn’t already know.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.
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