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Tuesday, April 2nd at 10pm on WGVU Public Television, PBS FRONTLINE presents "The Discord Leaks"

How a young National Guardsman leaked classified documents onto the Discord chat platform. WGVU spoke with The Washington Post Intelligence and National Security reporter, Shane Harris, about Jack Teixeira’s guilty plea for leaking national security secrets, why he wasn’t stopped, and the role of platforms like Discord.

Shane Harris: Jack Teixeira is a now 22-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. And where we encountered him in our story was in April of last year when about four dozen classified documents, military intelligence documents, began to inexplicably pop up on the internet. They were seen on social media sites. They were kind of moving around Twitter, places like Telegram. And as reporters started digging into this, including me and my colleague Sam Oakford at The Post, what we determined was that these documents had originated on a platform called Discord, which is basically a platform that lets people playing video games, and they're usually young people, talk to each other, see one another, almost like you would be on Zoom but playing a video game together. And it turns out that this Discord community that was sharing these classified documents was kind of this little virtual clubhouse that was led by this guy, Jack Teixeira who worked at an Army intelligence unit on an air base, a National Guard base in Massachusetts, and was a network technician in a very sensitive intelligence facility where because he worked on computer networks, he had access to top secret sources of classified information. And what we found in our story was that he spent the better part of many months reading classified documents that had nothing to do with his job, which he should not have been reading, and sharing potentially hundreds of those documents and things he learned from those documents with his friends back on the Discord video gaming platform. And some of those documents eventually were shared outside of that small circle, which is how the world came to find out that this Discord community even existed and how we found out who Jack Teixeira was.

Patrick Center: As someone who focuses on intelligence and national security, what is alarming or concerning?

Shane Harris: I think there are a couple of really big, concerning issues that this story revealed. One is the question of why someone like Jack Teixeira even had access to classified information in the first place? And when I say someone like Jack, what I mean is he had a fascination with guns, so much so that he was suspended from school when he was in high school for threatening to bring guns to school, for making what students and teachers felt were threats against other students and particularly against black people. He had an almost kind of obsessive quality about that. He was not a particularly great student, but he wasn't a poor student either, but he had this kind of weird red flag in his background that when he was vetted for a security clearance, we know that it came up in the course of an investigation, but for reasons that we don't understand the people who make these decisions decided that it wasn't sufficient reason to deny him a security clearance. So, he goes to work in this military facility where people know about this incident in his past. And he's spotted looking at classified documents in the facility and he's reprimanded no less than four times and told to stop. But nobody ever pulls him back off the line. Nobody ever suspends him from his work. So, this person who arguably maybe wasn't fit to be given access in the first place, when he is then abusing the access on the job, no one stops him. That was a huge security breakdown that the Air Force investigated and called out. And also, another troubling aspect that was brought up in the story is, you know, after 9/11 the intelligence community and the military went from keeping intelligence kind of locked away in different silos or spaces that, you know, the FBI couldn't see what the CIA was looking at and the defense intelligence agencies didn't know what the National Security Agency might know. And arguably that was not a good way to create an intelligence community that had visibility into all of the threats that might be out there. And 9/11 is a great example of that, of one where intelligence agencies just didn't connect the dots. The response to that was to make lots and lots of information very broadly accessible to all kinds of people. And there are many good reasons for that, but one of the major downsides of that is that you end up having a 21-year-old like Jack Teixeira, with a top-secret security clearance, who has no business accessing this information, being able to get access to it and ultimately leak it. And if you look at every other, almost every other, major national security leak of the post-9/11 era, they all involve people who have access to information, huge amounts of it, because it is now broadly available, whereas before 9/11 it was only available in certain silos. So, you look at Chelsea Manning. Edward Snowden, Reality Winner. These are all people who, like Teixeira, had access to a ton of stuff and were able to ultimately abuse that access. Now, in some cases, they actually exposed things that arguably were things the government should have been doing. Edward Snowden's case is a good example of that. But just from a pure standpoint of the government trying to keep secrets, it's very hard to do that when so many people have access to so much classified information. And that was a really revealing part of the story, I think.

Patrick Center: Is he leaking for celebrity? Does he leak to monetize the information that he has? What's the profile?

Shane Harris: So, Jack Teixeira is leaking to show off essentially. He, you know, we went back and interviewed people who knew him from even his middle school days. And one of the things that you find, or we found, was that he kind of has a pedantic streak. He's a bit of a know it all. He enjoys being somebody who knows points of trivia or really specific kinds of information. In his case, he would really geek out on weaponry and military hardware, and he likes knowing the specifics of things. When the war in Ukraine starts in February of 2022, when Russia invades Ukraine, Jack is working in this sensitive information facility, and he is seeing daily intelligence traffic on what is happening on the battlefield. He begins sharing that information, almost like he's acting like a war correspondent to these people he knows online, and he really appears to enjoy having access to these secrets. He enjoys knowing things that normal people don't. In fact, he even says to people he's talking to, hey, if you want to know something, if you have a question, let me know and I'll see if I can go find the answer for you. So, this was one of the stranger aspects of reporting this story. I mean, I've been an intelligence reporter for more than two decades, I'm used to people coming forward with classified information because they believe that there's wrongdoing that they want to expose. They might have like a political or a policy axe to grind. I've never seen someone who was sharing information, sharing classified intelligence to impress a bunch of his teenage friends. But this really does come down to ego. And that's actually not that unusual. We do see with a lot of leakers, even ones who are politically motivated, sometimes they do kind of have a healthy sense of ego and say, I'm the one who knows these things and I want to be the one to expose them. And I think there was a little bit of that going on with Teixeira too.

Patrick Center: And it comes at a cost. He has pled guilty.

Shane Harris: He has pled guilty. Yes. Last month he changed his original not guilty plea, and he has pleaded guilty. He will be sentenced in September and according to the guidelines and the agreement that the government worked out with his defense team, he'll get between 11 and nearly 17 years in prison.

Patrick Center: So, what's next? What is the government doing to better monitor and what happens with some of these social media platforms? How are they policed?

Shane Harris: Well, the government has said, the Defense Department in particular has said that in the wake of this leak, you know, that they are going to implement new policies and procedures, they're still rather vague about what that means. There's some indication that they might implement a system where, you know, one person is not allowed to be looking at classified documents, like a person like Jack Teixeira, by themselves. They could tighten up security procedures within these facilities where he worked. You know, in his case, he was actually left alone practically at night working nightshifts, so he was able to print documents out. There are things that they can do internally that would make that harder to do. Practically speaking though, this whole system of how intelligence is collected and distributed across the intelligence community, in which you have hundreds of thousands of people with security clearances, I don't think that's likely to change. You might see the government trying to squirrel away some more sensitive information in places where not everyone can get to it. But fundamentally, the system itself that Jack Teixeira exploited, I don't think is going to change in a big way. Companies like Discord face a huge challenge here in this environment. You know, we interviewed Discord executives and what they explained, and I think this is a fair point, is, you know, we don't know what a classified document is? We depend on the government to tell us what that is. So, if you want us to monitor our networks for this, you're going to have to give us some more information. At the same time, Discord particularly has a system, has a kind of architecture to its platform that makes it much, much easier for people, including young people and kids, to go off into these private rooms where there is no monitoring by the company of what they're doing. No effective way of really understanding, are they engaging in hate speech? Are they trafficking in improper materials? Are they trading classified documents? And what Discord says is, look, we depend upon users to essentially police themselves and to say to the monitors at the company when somebody is violating the terms of service. Well, you know, I think common sense tells you that's not really going to be an effective way of policing everything. So, they're in a real bind here. And social media companies in general have come under a lot of criticism, as we know, in the past couple of years, from lawmakers and policy experts saying, look, you're not doing enough to protect particularly young people on these platforms. And Discord is very attractive to young people. And in this case, some young people got into a whole lot of trouble because of the decisions that they were making on one of Discord's servers.

Patrick Center: Tonight at 10 o'clock on WGVU Public Television, PBS Frontline presents The Discord Leaks, intelligence and national security reporter with The Washington Post, Shane Harris. Thank you so much for your time.

Shane Harris: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.