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The sharing of sensitive military intelligence, which recently came to a head with the identification and arrest of a young United States military officer, has highlighted how social media can be abused to gain personal attention and how the US gathers intelligence everywhere, including on its allies. It has also flagged how easily this might reoccur.

David Deegan, 12 May 2023

On the 5 April 2023 the New York Times released a disturbing story that US military documents were being shared online with a group on a social media platform named Discord, and this had been going on since October 2022. At the time of the story the identity of the person leaking the information was unknown and was referred to by his online name of OG (Official Gangster). On 13  April FBI agents surrounded a house in North Dighton, Massachusetts and arrested Jack Texeira, a 21-year-old airman in the Massachusetts National Guard.

During the pandemic Texeira created an online space within the Discord platform, naming it Thug Shaker Central. Originally a space for young men and teenage boys to connect, share memes and play online military-style video games, the tone shifted when Texeira began sharing not just his stories about war but official documents. Other members of the group have said that he was neither acting as a whistleblower nor a spy, but had done this to inform and impress group members.

Regardless of why he chose to share the documents with that small group, the nature of the documentation has created serious consequences. His activity came to light when group members, who may not have considered potential consequences, began sharing the documents on other online sites.

The leaked documents included details about ongoing military campaigns including those in Ukraine, information about military strategies and discussions based on surveillance of allied nations.

Movements of political leaders, updates on the status of military forces, satellite images and battle charts of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, were among the documents leaked. Such information could assist Russia in bypassing Ukraine defences and targeting weaker areas. However, some of the documents contained information the US had obtained from intelligence activity within the Russian military. This could enable Russia to identify where they themselves had been infiltrated and close this intelligence leak to the US.

Documentation describing the potential path of North Korean ballistic nuclear weapons that could reach the US were shared, along with information about how South Korean officials were debating whether to supply ammunition to Ukraine. Such information could deepen the conflict between North and South Korea, the latter being against supplying weapons to warring nations.

The leaked material, which also provides information on how the US intercepts the conversations of its allies, is particularly sensitive. It shows not only that there has been US surveillance of the South Korean government but also monitoring by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.  It suggested that Mossad had fomented the participation of staff and civilians in anti-government protests in Israel. While it is uncertain whether the information is true or not, the very existence of such surveillance records is embarrassing and will certainly test the strength of strategic relationships with allies. The timing is particularly unfortunate as the President of South Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol, is due to visit Washington in the coming weeks for a state dinner in his honor.

The documents also suggest that the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which hosts several important US military installations, has been building closer relationships with Russia. The UAE has categorically dismissed those documents as false.

The Black Sea grain deal, brokered by the United Nations (UN) and Turkey, created procedures for safe maritime grain shipments from Ukrainian ports. Records of conversations between United Nations chief António Guterres and his deputy about the deal led the US to describe Guterres’ position as too sympathetic to Russian interests and prepared to deal with sanctioned Russian entities or individuals.

The story continues to unfold, and the full extent of what and how widely the information was shared may never be known, as the US races to close down the spread of the leaked information. However, the exponential potential of the internet itself means that these efforts may never be completely successful.

The implicated military organizations will undoubtedly have changed their strategies and operational plans as a result, so the short-term impact many not be catastrophic. But what of the long-term impact?

Knowledge of how the US is obtaining some of its military intelligence will lead other countries to investigate their own operations, thereby reducing the US ability to collect such information and hampering future intelligence operations. But where there is a will there is a way and US intelligence agencies are assuredly already working on creating new avenues for information.

Perhaps the most critical long-term consequence will be the damage to relationships between the US and its allies. It can take a long time for individuals and organizations to build trust in each other but a very short time for that trust to be broken, sometimes irreparably. For the organizations and individuals named in the documents unleashed by Texeira, the knowledge that one’s “friends” are actively eavesdropping will undoubtedly place a strain on bonds of trust.

Given the huge interconnectivity of social media there still remains the possibility that this could happen all over again. And since it took several months for the FBI to realise that information was being leaked, could this already be happening?

Picture: An aerial view of the Pentagon in Washington, DC looking south on 11 May 2021. © IMAGO / ZUMA Wire
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