Once again, classified materials linked to U.S. intelligence and defense agencies have reached the public domain via the internet. But do these documents really undermine Washington and its allies by revealing information not already known to geopolitical rivals? Is there much in the leaked items that is actually, or deserved to be, top secret? Or have the revelations, embarrassing as they might be to America and its partners, been shaped and reshaped to influence rivals and the global public by demonstrating the limitations of opposing powers?
What Came Through the Discord App
The so-called top secret documents have been exposed since February 2022. They were spread by a nondescript National Guardsman, Jack Teixeira, on Discord servers and chat groups to a Minecraft chat server, to the 4chan bulletin board and Russian Telegram channels, and eventually to Twitter users. Apparently, only in April did the Pentagon catch on to the online revelations.
The information leaked included intelligence analysis products about issues both related and unrelated to the war in Ukraine. Directly relevant data detailed estimates about Israel supplying equipment to Ukraine, the UAE and Egypt possibly supplying rockets to Russia, discussions by South Korean officials about supplying munitions to Ukraine, NATO plans to equip and train Ukrainian troops, personnel losses on both sides, and Russian plans to reward the destruction of NATO tanks. Other information covers topics such as a cyberattack on Canadian oil infrastructure, the Mossad’s attitude about judiciary protests in Israel, China’s hypersonic advances and its Indo-Pacific maneuvers, emerging powers seeking to stay removed from superpower rivalries, and shifting geopolitical alliances.
A Damaging Leak?
The greatest concern about this leak would be that Russia or other adversaries could figure out who collected information or how information was collected — sources and methods, in other words. Knowing sources means an adversary can remove them. Knowing methods means an opportunity to end access, or to work around it and nullify its usefulness. Should either or both these occur, U.S. ability to support Ukrainian battlefield maneuvers with effective intelligence, and to peer into the inner workings of rival nations, could fall short.
However, the leaked documents contain no great new revelations. The data sets were largely known and available through open sources. Likewise, many of the leaked analytical conclusions had already circulated beyond government circles without the need for top-secret, covertly collected data.
U.S. President Joe Biden nodded to the consequences’ lack of severity by telling the press, “I’m concerned that it happened, but there’s nothing contemporaneous that I’m aware of that is of great consequence right now.” Unauthorized disclosure, rather than revealed knowledge of data, sources, and methods, is the focus of the U.S. government’s response. The Discord leak is a violation of law and duty by the leaker and therefore an area of concern for information security, but it is not a national security calamity.
An Embarrassing Disclosure?
The Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971, the Wikileaks trove by Chelsea Manning in 2010, the NSA tranche by Edward Snowden in 2013, and the Intercept report by Reality Winner in 2017, top the list of previous failures to contain top secret materials. The Discord documents leak is yet another awkward moment for the U.S. military and intelligence communities because it highlights poor information security practices. This disclosure suggests that data management has not improved significantly since previous incidents that have been damaging to national security and to foreign relations.
Content about Canada, Israel, Pakistan, India, and South Korea may be discomforting, but is not particularly consequential. The United States can conduct an apology tour of our allies and friends by our Secretaries of Defense and State. Directors of our major intelligence agencies likely will be performing their own apology tours to the other members of the Five Eyes (Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) in addition to other friendly countries named in the documents. They will carry assurances that measures have been taken to reduce the chances of such a leak happening again.
An Influence Operation?
Upon parsing the data carefully, it becomes apparent that the primary knowledge gleaned from this leak is obvious — that countries spy on each other, even among allies and partners. Moreover, as already noted, much of the so-called classified information was already available in the public domain. As such, the possibility this leaked data was reworked to unsettle global competitors, especially Russia and China, cannot be disregarded. The data show how thoroughly those governments and their military and intelligence sectors have been infiltrated by the US. Leaders and subordinates within those authoritarian regimes will now be looking at each other with greater distrust.
The Discord documents indicate that, however challenging the situation may be for Ukraine, not only is Russia losing more personnel and materiel, but its forces are also completely infiltrated by human intelligence agents, signals intelligence, and geospatial intelligence. The many ways Beijing aids Moscow in its pursuit of an unjust war, while bullying its way around East Asia and the Pacific, have also been laid bare. If some of the data leaked through the Discord server reflect an influence operation, or were reshaped to serve such purpose, the intent is to show Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Federal Security Service, as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping and his People’s Liberation Army, that they have no secrets Washington cannot purloin. Certainly, Kremlin leaders worry “this is a deliberate information dump … in essence waging a hybrid war against us.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a review of intelligence access, accountability, and control procedures. As has happened after previous revelations, more cyber defenses will be deployed, and the number of people who can receive classified intelligence will be tightened even further under more stringent protocols.
There is another related, important, question arising from the Discord leaks that needs to be addressed by U.S. intelligence agencies. Why does so much publicly available information, and inference easily reached from open-source materials, need to be classified as secret — let alone top-secret? Focusing on classifying only the much smaller, truly important, covertly obtained data sets, and analyses derived from those information caches, will make U.S. secrets easier to secure from spies, leakers, hackers, and other bad actors.
Yet government employees and contract personnel involved in the handling of top secret information would still number in the thousands. Thus, even with a zero trust approach, future leaks may be unavoidable. Whether those disclosures, like the current one, damage American capabilities, merely generate foreign policy discomfort, or can be exploited to place rivals at a disadvantage, will depend not only on the information revealed, but on how efficiently, and even covertly, responses occur.
Carol E. B. Choksy is Senior Lecturer of Strategic Intelligence in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering at Indiana University. Jamsheed K. Choksy is Distinguished Professor and Director of the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University. The views expressed are the authors' own.