For a while now, I have been waiting for the battle lines to be drawn in what many are calling the most significant leak of top-secret documents in at least a decade and maybe longer.
This seemed to be perfect culture-war material, because, let’s face it, what isn’t? As you may have noticed, the culture wars are only getting hotter — particularly on abortion and guns, which, while always contentious, are now running code red — and will presumably stay that way at least until the 2024 elections and, very possibly, forevermore.
All we needed in the leak case was some idea of whom to blame. Was it Joe Biden or the so-called Deep State? Was it Donald Trump, who’s had his own issues with classified documents? Was it a whistleblower? Was it someone in the military tied to a right-wing militia group? Was it Russian-style cyberwar? Couldn’t there be some way to blame the Chinese or at least the Iranians?
In any case, once we had a villain, then we could probably get really serious about a leak that, from all we know, seems to be plenty serious enough — one that disclosed not only official insights into the state of the Russia-Ukraine war but also provided highly classified information on America’s ability to spy on Russia as well as on certain, presumably quite unhappy, U.S. allies.
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So, now we have a villain, or at least a suspected one in Jack Teixeira — a 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard — who has been arrested and charged with leaking hundreds of classified documents in violation of the Espionage Act.
But even with a villain, we have a story that doesn’t fit any easy classification because it’s a story that is, more than anything else, so hard to believe. And one, as Jonathan Last points out in Bulwark — the anti-Trump website run by conservatives and former Republicans — that shouldn’t devolve into a culture war despite some of the usual more-than-disturbing details about the accused leaker and his friends. I mean, isn’t everyone against the nether regions, and even some open regions, of the Internet?
Yes, Teixeira is, his friends tell us, a gun “enthusiast,” with libertarian views, who is antiwar (presumably channeling Tucker Carlson’s version of Putinism), patriotic, religious, from a military background, and someone with real concerns about America’s future. He also has a lot of guns, and members of his chat group showed the Washington Post video of Teixeira shouting racist and antisemitic slurs before firing a rifle. Yes, so it’s very disturbing.
If it sounds like right-wing extremism, and it probably is, that’s still not the whole story. There are other, important angles here.
We can begin with the fact that this obviously represents a failure, and only the most recent one, of the intelligence community and how, in this case, a 21-year-old, who was basically an IT specialist assigned to an Army intelligence unit, could have access to such sensitive documents. We’re told thousands of people could have had access to them. And as many experts have pointed out, how good are background checks on teenagers? Teixeira apparently got his top clearance when he was 19. I guess we can say someone wasn’t, uh, woke on this one.
Leaks can be beneficial. Think Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. And it has been clear for decades that we have too many classified documents, but it’s just as clear that far too many people have access to the classified information that is simply too dangerous to be revealed.
While the problem may be difficult to fix, it is easy enough to understand. Obviously, some serious reform is required.
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And then there’s the backstory on this case, which is another take on the dangers of social media. And, in this case, we can’t even blame Elon Musk, although it would be simpler if we could.
This part of the story, I guess, is also easy to understand — but much harder to fathom.
It starts with a chat group. Of course it does. The leaker and his friends met on a site called Oxide Hub — on a platform called Discord — and then decided to move to a closed gamer group, which apparently had somewhere between 20 to 30 members.
The group, also on Discord, was called Thug Shaker Central, a name apparently derived from a racist meme. According to multiple stories, the group enjoyed a game called Project Zomboid, which has been described as the ultimate zombie survival game. What else? And in their spare time, the group exchanged racist and antisemitic views and also talked about guns and about the war in Ukraine.
This is where the story turns. In an effort, we’re told, to inform and impress the group, Teixeira started posting elements of the information he had learned from reading classified documents on the Russian assault on Ukraine. The posts were long and complicated, and many of the members, we’re told, started losing interest.
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And so the leaker upped the stakes, posting photos of documents labeled “TOP SECRET,” which got everyone’s attention. According to people on the chat group, Teixeira warned group members that the information had to be kept within the group. But according to the New York Times, a 17-year-old named Lucca would publish many of the photos on a group called #War-Posting.
The Times story generously suggests that Lucca “might not have fully grasped the gravity of the documents he had been given access to.” That’s a decent guess. It took weeks for anyone to notice — including the U.S. intelligence community — that this secret information had gone public. That is, until Telegram, which is a messaging app popular in both Ukraine and Russia, started posting the secrets.
And then came the firestorm. And then came word from Teixeira that he was shutting everything down.
One chat-room member, who went by Vahki, said Teixeira told them: “Guys, it’s been good — I love you all. I never wanted it to get like this. I prayed to God that this would never happen. And I prayed and prayed and prayed. Only God can decide what happens from now on.”
As Vahki pointed out, this could be “life-in-prison” stuff.
It certainly could be life-and-death stuff. If we understand just that much, we know we don’t have to take sides, or draw battle lines, on this one. The real battle lines, after all, are in Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine is, of course, a different matter. That should be debated and argued, just not the way the ultimate culture warrior, Tucker Carlson, wants to debate it, with the truth, as the saying goes, the first casualty of war.
But the fact is you can read all about it — and in some cases, obviously much too much about it — on a social media post near you.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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