Last week, federal officials arrested Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old airman in the Massachusetts Air National Guard, accusing him of having leaked hundreds of pages of classified Pentagon documents on a Discord server, a social messaging program. The documents offer rare insights into the war in Ukraine and the extent of military casualties and reveal the presence of U.S. and other NATO nations’ special forces clandestinely operating in the war zone. They also document how the conflict is spilling over into the Middle East and shed light on U.S. penetration of Russian military plans and U.S. spy efforts, including against American allies and the United Nations secretary general.
This week on Intercepted, Jeremy Scahill, Murtaza Hussain, and national security editor Vanessa Gezari discuss the document leak and analyze what we know and don’t know about the young airman accused of distributing the documents, initially to a small group of gamers and gun enthusiasts in a private internet chatroom. They also discuss the media’s role in identifying the suspect using open source clues left by Texeira and his friends in the months leading up to his arrest as well as what the accused 21 year old might face in an Espionage Act trial.
[Intercepted theme music.]
Jeremy Scahill: Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill.
Murtaza Hussain: And I’m Murtaza Hussain. Today our colleague, Vanessa Gezari is joining us. She’s the National Security Editor for The Intercept.
Vanessa Gezari: Hi.
JS: Hey Vanessa. Thanks so much for being with us here on Intercepted, and we asked you to come on the show today because there’s a wild national security story that’s been simmering or brewing that involves a leak of some top-secret U.S. documents.
And the reason that I say it’s been simmering instead of exploding onto the scene — like the Edward Snowden documents, or when the Chelsea Manning documents were revealed by WikiLeaks — is that these documents that we’re going to talk about today began circulating online months ago, we understand, last December. And they began circulating on the internet, apparently, without the U.S. government knowing that they were out there, without any media outlets knowing they were out there. And, in fact, a pretty small group of what we understand to be teenage gamers or young adult gamers, they had privileged access to top secret documents. Some of them were even classified at the sensitive compartmented information level, which is a very high classification level.
And these were real-time documents that related to the war in Ukraine, to U.S. spying and hacking capabilities against Russia, to Chinese military planning, to the state of Taiwan’s missile defense and air defense system, to information on the U.S. spying on its own allies, and a whole slew of other sensitive information. And, as we currently understand the facts, there are potentially hundreds of these secret documents that began appearing on a Discord server that was known as Thug Shaker Central last December.
And what’s particularly fascinating about all of this is that the FBI or the Justice Department has now charged a 21-year-old airman in the U.S. National Guard in Massachusetts. His name is Jack Teixeira. And, according to his friends, his motive for disseminating these documents had nothing to do with blowing the whistle, or trying to change U.S. government policy, or highlighting a wrongdoing, or a violation of constitutional rights. It seems as though, from what we understand, based on interviews that some of his friends have done, and from the Justice Department indictment — And the caveat here is that the Justice Department indictment doesn’t necessarily mean that those are facts, this is what the government is asserting. But his friends also have sort of said that he really just wanted to kind of make sure that the young people, who he was the leader of their Discord group, that they really understood these documents that he was sharing with them and understood what was going on in the world.
So it seemed like his motive was to basically show off to a bunch of his gamer buddies who shared this love of guns, and wargaming, and concocting racist memes. And there’s been reports that there was a video of Jack Teixeira where he’s, like, spitting out racist terms before emptying his magazine at a gun range. And one of his friends mentioned something about him being very disturbed by the raid at the Waco compound in the 1990s, or the Ruby Ridge standoff. So it seems like there’s something going on there with racist memes and racist attitudes. But whether that has anything to do with this leak, we have no clue at this point.
And so, a couple months after these documents first start appearing on this small Discord server, some of them start to trickle out and appear elsewhere, outside of this small group of friends, which was, we understand, numbering maybe 20, 25 people. And they weren’t just American citizens, according to members of the group; some of them purported to even be Ukrainian or Russian.
But some of these documents then start to appear on 4chan, on other Discord servers, and also on Russian Telegram channels. And, and some of them, we now know, were altered before they were put on Russian Telegram channels to sort of make it look like Ukrainian casualties were higher in some of the documents and Russian casualties lower, but they seemed to have been doctored after they had already been released by the initial disseminator.
But it wasn’t until April 6th that The New York Times did the first media report on the existence of some of these documents. And, since then, dozens of these documents — Washington Post is saying 300 documents that they’ve seen — have been located and reported on. And the documents we’ve seen have been photographs of what would appear to be printed pages of classified documents that were then folded in four, and supposedly smuggled out of the SCIF or the secure facility where this airman was based in Massachusetts.
And whatever the motives turn out to be — and right now the motive that’s being stated by the friends is that he essentially just wanted to be cool in front of this group of young people that he was sort of the default leader of, “The OG” as they called him — it doesn’t mean that these documents are any less interesting or valuable to the public understanding of really serious current events, including the War in Ukraine that the U.S. is a major participant in.
But I’ll just say, Vanessa, that as far as I can recall, from my knowledge of history or my involvement with leak stories, this is probably the most wacky leak of sensitive documents in American history. So, there’s a lot to unpack here but, first, Vanessa, just your initial thoughts on how this developed, and what you see as the most significant revelations, or some of them.
VG: Thanks Jeremy. Yeah, I think that’s right. It is a wacky story, and this is not the way documents of this kind usually come into public view at all. For those of us who are not involved in the online gaming world like me, I was just pretty intrigued at the beginning that there are these platforms where people from all over the world are playing these games, and they’re sharing all kinds of things, including this information.
There was a good story in The Washington Post about one of the people who was on this Discord server, talking about their relationship with this guy who they called The OG, and I find it really hard to tell at this point what his motivation was. Different people have said that he just was trying to have clout and show that he was the “big man” on the Discord server, but I think there might be more to it than that.
I think that one of the things that that other person on the server said was, he kind of wanted us to know what was really going on. And I think something that we’ve noticed in, really, the last two decades as the United States has been involved in the so-called war on terror and been operating increasingly secretively all over the world, militarily, and with its int intelligence services. I think that people who, even people who are involved in that fight in one way or another, often have the feeling that they’re not getting the full picture. And that is true, I think.
And so, in one way, I sympathize with young people who are not in the military or in the intelligence world, as well as those who are, who sort of get the feeling that they’re not seeing a lot of what’s really happening. They’re not understanding a lot of what’s really happening in terms of the way the U.S. is conducting itself militarily, and with regard to intelligence, around the world. And, in this case, a lot of these documents focus on the war in Ukraine, where we’ve been able to get very little actual information. I mean, some very basic things we still don’t know after this war has gone on for more than a year. You mentioned the document about casualties; so, that’s the one document I think that we’re totally sure was doctored in one of the versions that was posted on this Russian Telegram channel. But this is something that we’ve talked about internally at The Intercept for a long time. We don’t know, actually, what the casualty figures are for Russia and Ukraine.
There’s another document in this set that talks about the number of special operations forces that belong to NATO, the United States, and other countries that are on the ground in Ukraine. And that document said — and I forget, it’s from March, I think — it says that there are 14 U.S. special operations forces on the ground in Ukraine, and there’s something like 79 State Department people on the ground in Ukraine. And, you know, when I looked at that document, my first thought was, this is not earth shattering news that there are 14 special operations forces.
It just, it really is kind of — And I’m getting to your question about the significance of these documents. Some of these documents, there are revelations in them, but there’s a lot of stuff in here that, arguably, we should have already known about. This is not information that should be classified, first of all.
And, secondly, it’s not that remarkable, it’s not that earth shattering. So, I think there are things like battle plans that are very time sensitive in this document cache that, you could argue, really could compromise the safety of forces involved in those battle arrangements., right? But there are other things. Like, one document that comes to mind is one about officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency who are visiting nuclear sites in Ukraine. And one of them is upset because they’re not going to be able to go, because there’s fighting there, and they’re trying to figure it out.
And I read this — it’s just kind of a summary in one of these documents — and I just thought, literally nobody cares about this. Like, inside baseball over whether they’re going to actually be able to go to this nuclear site in Ukraine or not, you know? So, I think there’s a range of things in these documents, and I just want to start by tamping down the alarmism that a lot of people have expressed about how much this compromises national security.
I think it really depends [on] what you mean by “national security,” and what you mean by compromise.
MH: So, it’s interesting. I think, for many years, at The Intercept, we had a cache of documents — classified intelligence documents, The Snowden Archives — which you reported on for many, many years. I think those of us who spent a lot of time looking at them came to a similar conclusion to Vanessa. That, although many of them were very important or embarrassing or sensitive, many of them were not. Or perhaps there’s a degree of great over classification of mundane details.
And I think that what that often fosters, this level of caginess about information which is not dangerous, or could help public understanding and not harm anyone, it fosters the level of paranoia or distrust of the government, when their actions are so opaque, anyways, and when there’s such a track record of failure, as it’s been for many, many years in certain foreign policies and military engagements.
So I think that the defensiveness of information, which oftentimes is not that important or interesting, or not that harmful for the public to know, it kind of feeds a desire for more leaks like this, or more distrust, and more suspicion of the government in general. And I think one thing that’s really interesting about this leak — There’s actually two things. First, I remember that watching a Daniel Ellsberg interview many years ago talking about the mechanics of leaking The Pentagon Papers, and he said that one of the hardest things of doing it was actually physically getting papers and making photocopies, and not being detected, and carrying the papers and things like that. That was a much more analog era for people doing leaks, and that was a barrier of doing so.
In this case, this young man, he had a cell phone camera, he was able to print one page at a time, he was able to transcribe things, and he had no problem disseminating or broadcasting it to those whom he wanted to hear it. He had a Discord channel of, you know, God knows who was in it. Not very hard to share information there if you’re in it, though. And social media, other platforms as well, make it a lot easier.
So I think that you’re likely to see the confluence of these two things. Like, a young generation which is kind of reared in distrust or suspicion of the government. And, secondly, much lower barriers to leaking information and so forth. So I think that, in the future, if things are going to be classified, they should be judicious in what they classify, but also they can devote more energy to classifying and protecting what’s truly important, as opposed to over classifying and generating a demand and a pull for these documents, and for people to give the information like this, which is, in many ways, easier than ever, on a technical basis.
JS: You know, it’s also interesting when you contrast this. I mean, first of all, you could contrast it on, on one level with the, the motive of an Edward Snowden, or the posture of Julian Assange, or the kind of conscience motivation of Chelsea Manning, but I think that the times in which we live call for, also, another layer of comparison, which is that, we right now have Donald Trump under federal investigation for having absconded with classified documents to Mar-a-Lago.
It’s almost like, in a way — and also Joe Biden and Mike Pence are known to have mishandled classified documents and taken them to their private residences — and Biden seems likely that it’s part of the kind of general, “I’m above the law,” egotistical posture that many, many, many Washingtonian insiders have taken over the decades, where they just feel like the laws don’t apply to them and they can take documents home. I mean, it’s possible there’s something nefarious there involving Hunter Biden, and China, and Ukraine, and the big guy, and all that stuff. I mean, maybe that’s true.
But, the facts, as we understand them, it seems like Joe Biden probably did what scores of Washington insiders do, and they just feel like it doesn’t apply to me, I can take these home to use at my thinktank or whatever. With Trump, though, it does seem a little bit like there is a parallel here. It’s like, Mar-a-Lago is Trump’s Thug Shaker Central. Like, he took a bunch of documents that he just wants to be able to show people in Mar-a-Lago. It’s also possible that he was trying to blackmail people or what, you know, whatever. I mean, we don’t know all the facts.
But I do think that it is, it’s really interesting that we’ve had a leak of this nature. And Shane Harris of The Washington Post has been doing some really interesting reporting on this specific case, and one of the things that U.S. officials have been telling him, according to his reporting, is floating the idea that foreign spies are kind of populating some of these gamer chat rooms in the hopes that they stumble across someone who is U.S. military.
And one of the things that came to my mind when I first heard that this guy was an airman, and what he was doing, and that he was also into gaming, was how much capital the U.S. military has spent on trying to make war seem like a video game. And to appeal to that kind of personality — people that already are fluent in the joystick or the controller, and that they already are doing this, and they’re achieving skills that in our modern era are applicable to bombing people half a world away while you’re sitting in a Conex box in the desert somewhere or, in this case, somewhere in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. So there are layers of this that I think are really interesting.
It also comes at a time when the President of the United States himself — We just saw a press conference from the Attorney General weeks ago dealing with Joe Biden’s mishandling of classified documents, with Donald Trump’s mishandling of classified documents, with Mike Pence’s mishandling of classified documents. We have Julian Assange rotting in a prison across the Atlantic, we have Daniel Hale serving a 48-month prison sentence where he is basically being psychologically tortured. You had Reality Winner getting hit with the longest sentence — for one document — for the longest sentence of any whistleblower convicted under the Espionage Act. You had Terry Albury, all of these other people have had the book thrown at them, and this is an interesting moment for this young guy to have done this on the Discord server when the sitting president of the United States, and the just recently former President of the United States, and Vice President of the United States, are also under investigation for the very same issue of mishandling government documents.
VG: Yeah, I think that’s a great point, and I think it’s really interesting. I haven’t read any stories that have actually mentioned that context about Trump and Biden and the classified documents in stories about Teixeira. There was just a really interesting wrinkle in this over the weekend which you guys may or may not have seen about how these documents made their way to some of these Russian Telegram channels. And, actually, The Wall Street Journal reported that this was because a recently retired Navy non-commissioned officer was running a sort of pro-Russian pro-Kremlin — Was one of, I guess, according to the Journal, 15 administrators of a site called Donbass Devushka.
And that’s where this one-doctor document, and maybe some others as well, related to Ukrainian and Russian casualties, showed up a few weeks ago, leading many people to kind of think, oh, this is a big disinformation op. But what’s interesting is this, by my reading so far — and I haven’t read everything about this — but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Teixeira. It seems to have to do with this having gotten picked up by, actually, weirdly, somebody else who was formerly in the U.S. military, and has some kind of ties to Russia, or some interest or allegiances in that direction, and it getting kind of passed over there.
So I actually don’t have a lot of hope that Teixeira is going to — I mean, I think he’s likely to be one of these people who gets the book thrown at him, because of his age, because of the way that he did this, if it does indeed emerge, as they’ve alleged, that he’s the leaker, and the number of documents and things that seem to be out there.
But I do think that’s a great point. And because the Espionage Act is structured the way it is, he will be very limited in terms of what he’s able to say in his defense.
JS: He also can be simultaneously — There can be court-martial proceedings against him. You know, he’s active duty, he could be charged. I know the law is complicated on this. You can’t be tried for the same crime in two different venues, because of double jeopardy issues, but he still can be tried under the Uniform Code of Military Justice if they hit him with charges that are not too closely related to this. So, he also could be looking at a whole world of hurt within the military justice system.
And, Maz, I want to talk about some of the specifics, though, because I don’t know that it’s that I disagree with you, Vanessa, but I share the point and perspective that there wasn’t a whole lot here regarding the war in Ukraine that came as a shock. But I do think that, seeing that there are 50 British special operations forces on the ground in Ukraine, yes, we’ve been suspecting this, and yes, we know from how the U.S. and Britain and other countries operate, that it would be implausible to believe that they don’t have people on the ground. But when you get validation for these facts, it does move the ball forward in terms of public interest and understanding.
But I do think that there are some other really interesting revelations that maybe are not directly about the state of Ukraine’s military capacity and what might happen in the next year that relate to other players in the world. And, Maz, you had an interesting article you wrote with Ken Klippenstein about this in The Intercept about how some of what’s happening in Ukraine can end up bleeding into the Middle East. Maybe you can lay a little bit out from your piece.
MH: Yeah. Pertaining to Ukraine very briefly, too, I think the one piece of information which was very interesting was what we alluded to earlier, with the casualty figures in Ukraine, the estimated casualty figures, which the government has been so cagey about, and now we have at least a ballpark of what they think is true. So I think that, definitely to your point, Jeremy, moves the ball forward a little bit in public understanding, despite a lot of the other documents being less interesting.
JS: Wait, Maz, on that point, do you have those numbers in front? Because I think this is worth pulling up. I was saying, and I talked about this in my interview with Noam Chomsky, and we’ve talked about this a lot internally, but, you know, I’ve said, almost from the very beginning, there’s been this systematic attempt on the part of Ukraine, the U.S., and the allies, to radically downplay Ukrainian losses, particularly militarily, and to inflate or emphasize Russian military casualties. And I think some people are starting to realize that this has gone a lot worse than people have been told, that it’s a lot more dire for Ukraine than people have been led to understand by the immense propaganda, the incredible propaganda campaign that Ukraine and its allies have waged.
And, at the end of the day, it does seem like these documents indicate what a lot of critics have been saying was the case, which is: Why continue this on if it’s going to end in the same place? And I’ve seen people who have been big proponents of arming Ukraine and keeping it going in recent weeks, starting to say, listen, there has to be a negotiated solution.
I mean, this was the line that the so-called realists were taking very early on, getting attacked for, but there does seem to be a validation in part, in some of these documents, of what I think were very legitimate lines of inquiry and critique of the U.S. strategy in Ukraine.
Anyway, Maz, do we have the statistics of what these documents assess the U.S. believes the casualty figures look like?
MH: So, according to documents, the U.S. military estimates that Ukraine has suffered between 15,000 to 17,000 troops killed in action during the war, and also over a hundred thousand, almost 113,000 wounded in action. Russia, meanwhile, estimated to have 35,000 to 43,000 forces killed in action, and 150,000 to 180,000 wounded in action. So, we’re talking about very, very high numbers of casualties on both sides. Higher on the Russian side, especially in terms of killed in action, but certainly the total number of people being previously wounded or taken off the battlefield has been very, very high.
And, secondarily, those figures, a separate document reported a few days later, showed that the Russian elite units, the Spetsnaz, have taken very, very high casualties in the course of the war. Which has very, very important consequences for Russian military effectiveness, but also in terms of the future types of troops they are going to be deploying to Ukraine.
It kind of actually explains a bit why they’re sending mercenaries and former prisoners into the war. A lot of their elite troops, who take a long time to replenish and to rebuild after they’ve been destroyed, have been dying in Ukraine over the past year or so. So, very, very jarring figures.
And, initially, there was a doctored document circulating on Telegram which seems to show the numbers flipped, but when we saw the original documents, they showed these numbers, which I just reflected, which show relatively higher Russian casualties than Ukrainian. So, on that score, it was very enlightening, those documents, for sure.
One thing I found really interesting — and the story me and Ken did last week shed a bit of light on it — was the impact of the war on the Middle East as assessed by U.S. Intelligence. So, one major ongoing theme of the conflict has been, Israel has sort of been in the middle a little bit, in terms that they are on the U.S. side on many issues. But, in the Middle East, they have a very important working relationship with Russia to deconflict, and to allow them to carry out airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria where Russia has a very strong influence.
So these documents actually shed some light on the fact that this has been a point of contention between the U.S. and Israel in private conversations. While the U.S. has been asking Israel to supply anti-aircraft, anti-tank weaponry to Ukrainians, the Israelis have been reticent to do so for fear of alienating the Russians.
So, internally, U.S. Intelligence has been gaming out scenarios in which a combination of U.S. pressure and changes in Russian-Israeli relations in the Middle East could impel the Israelis to deliver more arms to Ukraine. So it’s a little bit of an interesting slice of how these conversations are happening in the background. We’ve had some sort of inkling that this kind of tension existed, but more details certainly are provided by the documents.
But, you know, also, the documents have little snippets of really fascinating assessments on other countries and other parts of the region as well, too. Very, very interestingly, U.S. Intelligence was accusing the Mossad of helping foment these protests against Benjamin Netanyahu in recent weeks in Israel. And, very, very interestingly, other countries in the region like Egypt and the U.A.E. are accused of or suspected of cooperating with Russia in very, very direct ways. And I think one really interesting document showed that U.S. intelligence believes that Egypt had been providing munitions rounds to the Russian military to help with their offensive, in trying to keep it quiet from the U.S., although apparently their surveillance picked it up.
And, secondarily, the U.S. caught Russian intelligence bragging about the fact that they’ve sealed agreements with the U.A.E. and Emirati intelligence to work against U.S. and U.K. interests in the region. So, really, really interesting private assessments.
I think the disclosure of these certainly is embarrassing, not just to U.S. intelligence, but also to these countries which try to manage a very positive cooperative relationship with the U.S. in private. But clearly there are these subterranean intentions over many, many issues. And at the root of it today is the Ukraine war, which seems to be the new axis around which events are being driven at the moment.
JS: You know, Vanessa, we also, a couple weeks ago, Maz and I did a whole show looking at China and the emerging strengthening relationship between China and Russia, and China’s role in the world. And in recent days we’ve also had the news out of China where Lula Da Silva, the recently reelected president of Brazil, which is a very large and quite influential country in the world, certainly in the western hemisphere, Lula has been out there just blasting the war in Ukraine, the U.S. role, Europe’s role. He’s accused Europe of basically now becoming a direct participant in the war itself.
And I think if you look thematically at some of what’s going on in these documents — which of course, as far as we know, a curated set of documents — but there is a common thread through some of these when you look at some of what Maz was just talking about, when you take into account that the U.S. is spying on the Secretary General of the United Nations, and the U.N. Secretary General himself being quite critical though diplomatic of the Western flow of weapons into Ukraine.
This is all happening at a time when there is a real move underfoot or underway on the part of many nations, including nations who have huge populations, to try to shatter this superpower status of the United States and move toward a multipolar world. And these documents have some whiffs of evidence that that really is quite pervasive among a lot of nations, that they want to be able to develop their own foreign policies without being told by the United States, if you don’t do this, then there will be consequences for you.
VG: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. I think that the documents do show a world that is much less kind of unipolar or bipolar than what we may have expected. And maybe much less so than what it would’ve been if this were ten years ago and we had seen these documents. I think the degree to which the United States is learning and listening about, you know, what Turkey is doing, what Brazil is doing. A lot of countries.
There are a lot of very interesting tidbits and nuggets in these documents. It reminds me of the State Department cables leak in that way. You know, as one of my colleagues said, it’s going to be B-matter for stories for years to come. One of the most interesting documents I think in there is the one about Lula wanting to broker some kind of a deal, or at least get Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table, and Russia being very interested in that, of course. And, I think, everybody thinking that it won’t fly, because the U.S., it goes against the U.S.’s kind of idea of the way this war, with Russia as the aggressor and Ukraine as the sort of righteous underdog.
You know, some coverage has noted rightly that Brazil has supplied weapons and other material to Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. for the war in Yemen. So it’s not like there’s total good guys here, but I do think that that was an interesting document.
I mean, there’s one document in there that I haven’t seen anybody write about yet, about the killing of an ISIS leader in Syria. And it says that he was responsible for sending $500,000 to the Afghan offshoot of ISIS in August of 2021, right before the United States withdrew, which I found incredibly interesting. And it’s the tip of some kind of a story that somebody could report out, you know? But we just haven’t yet.
So, I didn’t mean to necessarily say that there’s nothing of interest in here. I think there are lots of things of interest, and it’s just, you know, it’s — But I think you’re right. I think it does show the world as being more fractious, and more countries trying to flex their muscles than we might expect.
JS: Also, Vanessa, The Intercept — and Alice Speri has really been at the forefront of this — has done a lot of really, really good reporting on the Wagner mercenary group. And in the documents, while there’s a lot of focus on the struggles of some other nation states, it does seem like Wagner is operating its own kind of foreign policy as well, and seems to be making quite a bit of progress, even as the Russian military finds itself in trouble in some areas.
Talk a little bit about what we learned about Wagner in the documents.
VG: Yeah, I agree. I think that’s another really interesting aspect of the documents, what Wagner is doing in Africa, which there’s been some reporting about, for sure. The fact that they are also trying to get involved in Haiti. And, you know, there’s some stuff in these documents about what they’re doing in Ukraine, and how they’re faring there. And maybe they’re not faring as well as it might seem.
I mean, you know, there’s been some news coverage of that, right? How their fortunes have been up and down in Ukraine, and where the sort of nominal head of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, stands in relation to Putin as a possible political rival, and the politics within Russia between those guys.
But I do think that I would definitely opt in for the Wagner feed of these documents. If I could, like, continue getting that in my inbox, if that were a newsletter option, I would totally do it, because I think those are some of the most interesting things in here.
And, again, I didn’t see — Nothing jumped out at me as being completely earth shattering in what I saw, but I do think that they are doing so much in so many places, and have wrought significant changes in countries like Mali and Mozambique that are very poorly understood here, that I would love to know more, always, about what they’re doing.
JS: Can I ask you something, Vanessa, that’s not actually about the documents, but just because you’ve edited pieces about Wagner, you follow this very closely? Are they at all independent, do you think, of Putin or the Russian state?
I mean, it’s interesting, because I did a lot of work on Blackwater and Eric Prince, and most certainly there was an element of Blackwater that was operating at the direction of the CIA, or of the State Department, or the Defense Department. But then there was a whole lot of freelancing going on, and work for other governments, and work for private companies. But is it correct to sort of speak as though Wagner is a wholly separate entity from the Russian government?
I’m just asking to your best understanding, to what extent does the Russian State actually control Wagner?
VG: Well, I’d love to hear Maz’s thoughts on this too. I’m not an expert on Wagner, but my sense is that this has changed over time, and that it may continue to change. I think that, at some point in the past, I would’ve said that Wagner was wholly under the control of the Kremlin.
I think that in recent months during this war, we’ve seen some rifts emerge between Wagner’s leadership and Putin. And it’s hard to know what’s real there, right? Because we’re kind of not in a position — I mean, I’m not in a position to be knowing exactly what’s going on with them and what their chains of command are. It does appear that there’s been some tension between Prigozhin and Putin.
And, as I mentioned that there have been some interesting stories that we’ve talked about internally around whether Putin is beginning to see Prigozhin as something of a threat, because Wagner has been so successful in some areas of the world, and in Ukraine at various times. And because, you know, Prigozhin was doing quite a bit of grandstanding in recent months, with going around and recruiting prisoners, and he was really a very big deal. He became much more of a public person than he had ever been before over the last year.
And, you know, that seems to have died down some now. But, again, I would be interested in Maz’s take as well. He may be following it more closely than I am.
MH: Yeah, I agree with you, Vanessa, in the sense that it’s kind of hard to know, because it’s such an opaque system and so forth, but there’ve been some interesting developments recently regarding Prigozhin. Last week he actually gave a public address where he called for a peace settlement in Ukraine, and said the war had gone on long enough. And it’s hard to say if that’s his own independent foreign policy through Wagner that he’s expressing, or if he’s being used as a trial balloon by Russian elites to float this idea, to ultranationalist sections of the population. It’s hard to say.
But I think that one thing in the documents which is sort of hinted at implicitly is that Wagner has a lot of autonomy in a lot of its actions, or in relations with foreign governments. And I think that one very interesting document in there — which has been covered a little bit, but not really — it sheds light on Wagner and the shadowy world of international arms trading because, according to this document, Wagner has been soliciting arms or trying to purchase arms in Turkey, which ostensibly has been — They had a lot of PR out of arming the Ukrainian military and selling them drones, and trying to, you know, play a constructive role in the conflict.
But, behind the scenes, it seems like the Turkish government, or elements therein, and Wagner have been talking about arming Wagner to carry out operations in Africa and other places where they’ve been quite a destabilizing force. So I think that you can see some sort of autonomy in their actions. How much of it is intended, or how much is like a leash they get from the government? It’s hard to say.
It does remind me a little bit about somebody else who we covered with classified documents many years ago, which was Cosmo Soleimani. He was sort of a loyal member of the Iranian regime, but he also had his own profile, he was building his own profile. And, according to Iranian documents, which we read and published in later years, there was quite a bit of skepticism or negative sentiment inside the Iranian government about that, but they didn’t feel they could control him, because he’s very popular. And it’s possible that states which are weaker, or which are structured in a different manner, they could have independent actors like this who can carve a role for themselves.
And, you know, very quickly too: on the arms trading part, there’s also another document in there which I think pointed at something we’re often looking for, but you have to read between the lines a bit. There seems to be some coercion in the relationship between the U.S. and Serbia in light of the conflict. Obviously, Serbia has kind of historic ties with Russia — cultural and religious reasons and so forth — and they’ve tried to really walk a fine line in the conflict by staying neutral, because they have a EU relationship, but also a lot of popular background with Russia as well too.
According to a document in here, which the Serbian government later denied, Serbia has been arming the Ukrainian military as well, and ostensibly under U.S. and E.U. pressure to do so. Because that admission would be very, very unpopular with a lot of people in Serbia, and I’m sure it would be against the desires of the Serbian government if they could choose. But, from the beginning, they’ve been pressed between two hard places as a result of this conflict.
And what we see, likely, is that the U.S. government’s allies have successfully convinced them to do something which the population, rightly or wrongly, probably doesn’t like, in terms of arming Ukraine and their side of the conflict.
JS: Yeah. Just on a micro level on this too, Maz, it’s interesting, because the president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić was — I mean, the story of what’s happened politically in Serbia is, under itself — you know, since the fall of Milošević — is worth talking about on a show.
But, just for people to understand, the current leader of Serbia, Vučić was the, the Baghdad Bob, basically, of Milošević’s regime in the late nineties, and right up to Milošević’s downfall in October of 2000. And he himself has been really walking this line that you’re describing, also around the U.N. vote. Like, at the beginning of this, how was Serbia going to vote? You know, Serbia is under immense pressure right now because of the E.U. membership process and wanting certain powerful elements within the Serbian government wanting to join the E.U.
Then you have very hardline nationalists, you have people that are still constantly talking about the 1999 NATO bombing, and the Clinton administration’s attack on Serbia and Montenegro at the time. But, also, there was a case not that long ago of Serbs who had gone to fight, essentially, on the Russian side in Ukraine, and then returned to Serbia. And, you know, Vu?i? has to deal with that then, and he’s saying, oh, they’re going to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
But, remember, too, this was a government that allowed indicted war criminals to sit around in cafes for many, many, many years. And, you know, it’s not that they didn’t know where Ratko Mladić was; it’s that, politically, it would’ve been suicidal to arrest the guy, or to facilitate his arrest. And only when it becomes totally untenable does the Serbian regime cave in and do this stuff.
So, that’s a subplot that maybe not that many people are interested in, but it is a kind of interesting case study in how the U.S. is navigating all of this right now. And, by the way, the situation with Kosovo is also very incendiary right now, where public opinion in Serbia is, Kosovo is Serbia. And the nationalists in Serbia are making that direct connection in defense of Putin’s war in Ukraine, saying, yeah, and Kosovo belongs to us, still.
And so, it’s one of those dynamics that maybe is not grabbing the headlines, but it’s a really interesting microstudy in the proxy politics that are playing out in the world right now.
Vanessa, I wanted to ask you, though, speaking of everything, as we wrap up here — and, you know, anything any of us want to throw out there on the board for people to think about is totally fair game — but I did want to ask about this issue of The New York Times, Bellingcat, other news outlets naming the suspect just before the indictment on of Jack Teixeira came down.
You know, The Intercept did a piece on this, I know our former colleague Glen Greenwald was on Fox News talking about this, and accusing news outlets of collaborating with the government in identifying the leaker, or the disseminator of this information. And, you know, Aric Toler of Bellingcat, who was bylined on The New York Times piece, said that the government already knew the identity, a day before.
Now, I haven’t dug so deep into this part of the story, but my read on it is that the news outlets, yes, they were racing to try to identify this person, because there was such a richness of evidence in the public domain, from the photographs, where you see magazines, a certain kind of table. You know, it’s the kind of stuff that Bellingcat and other open source people sort of spend all night working on.
But I think it’s a little bit unfair to say — I mean, maybe I’m off here — but that doesn’t seem to me like they were aiding the government. I seemed as though there were sort of parallel tracks happening, and that there was a race to try to uncover this part of the story first, because it wasn’t like they were trying to identify who was given to a media outlet. As far as we know, this was a guy posting documents to his chat group and Discord.
And so, I don’t know. I’m unresolved about this, but I’m just being honest, I don’t think it’s a fair critique to say that they aided and abetted the government in identifying him. It really does seem like the government already knew this, and that it’s a perfectly legitimate line of inquiry given how this was done.
I don’t know, maybe you guys disagree with me, but that’s — Or I’ll get a lot of shit for this. But, I’m sorry, I’m just being honest. I just don’t see the “there” there.
VG: Well, I think a lot of people agree with you, and certainly a lot of journalists do. I think it’s nuanced, OK? I don’t think it’s a totally black and white situation. But here’s the way I can walk you through what was our thinking in writing that story, and my thinking about this has been: first of all, we don’t know. We don’t know where the government was in its investigation with regard to when these other things were coming out, and we probably never will.
We may not ever know the answer to whether they got the information from reporting, which happens, probably, all the time, right? I mean, the government often probably gets information from public reporting that helps with its investigations. I don’t necessarily think there is anything wrong with that, but I also think that when you do that kind of reporting in this kind of a situation, where there’s a manhunt on, to find the leaker, you have to understand that you may be playing into an ongoing investigation. And, because of the timing of when the Times story ran and when the arrest of Teixeira happened, it felt — you know, the word I think we used in the story was “unseemly” — but, you know, to me, the work of a journalist is not police work.
Let’s just even take away the fact that this is a person who, his crime was sharing information, for whatever motivations. I’m not going to say that he was a classic whistleblower, I don’t think there’s evidence that he was, but he was sharing information that increased public transparency about the workings of government, OK? And that is usually something that, in the press, we want more of, and I know at The Intercept we do.
And so, you know, it feels odd that when Bellingcat and The Times collaborated on that story that was up just hours before Teixeira was arrested — you know, naming him — it felt odd to some of us that there was nothing in that story that treated him as a source. That is, one of my colleagues asked, why didn’t they interview him? Like, what about talking to him, rather than just saying, this is his name and this is where he is?
What the story did was it took a very kind of clear, to my read, investigatory line of, we’re going to find this guy, rather than being curious or interested in what this person might know or who this person might be that would help us have a broader understanding of the story and of these documents. And I also found it troubling that at the same time that The Times was rushing to do that story — Which is a totally legitimate line of reporting. I don’t know that being packaged the way that it was was exactly what I would’ve done, but sure, it’s a legitimate line of reporting to try to find out who leaked these documents and try to be the first person to talk to that person. I mean, I fully get that.
But, meanwhile, for the last week and a half, they’ve been doing front page stories based on the information in these documents. And it just feels like speaking out of both sides of their mouth, you know? Hey, you got something out of this. Like, you broke news out of this and you drew millions of readers to your site by breaking the news that you read in these documents that this person provided. And then you named the guy, knowing that there’s severe consequences for this person.
So, it feels not quite right to me. It’s not the reporting that I would like to think that I would’ve done if I had been in that job, in that position, to be on the desk or on this story, with the assignment to find the guy.
MH: I was very curious when this story first started leaking, what the origins of this individual were. Because, Jeremy, as you said, it was a very weird, and wacky, and unconventional leak story. So, in one sense, I was reading those stories, documenting, coming closer and closer to the identity of the individual leaking it. At the same time, I think that part of the weirdness of the leak has been used as a tool to distract from the, in some cases, substantive content of some of these leaks as well, too.
So, I think that it is interesting how this guy leaked it. I think there’s also a very interesting part of his age, and the cultural context, and the technological context of it as well too. And I think I give the benefit of the doubt to the journalists who covered, in the sense that I don’t think they were trying to get him arrested. And I do agree with Vanessa that maybe they contributed to it inadvertently, and that’s maybe not the way we would’ve covered it at The Intercept.
But I do think that the most important thing, still, is parsing through all this information, which, very, very rarely do we get unfiltered; you could say more of unspun kind of information and assessments from the U.S. government, and that’s really the important thing. And I also saw that some people, when this was happening, it wasn’t really the journalists themselves who were treating it, characterizing them as hunting for a leaker, trying to stop a leak and so forth.
You know, some of the people who were cheerleading for a little bit and viewing it that way, there was some writer at The Atlantic who I thought, he said they called the journalists heroes of the hunt, to hunt the leaker, which I don’t think was their intention, but it did seem like that a little bit, and I think that you have to be wary when in a situation like this not to contribute to it.
JS: No, I mean, the discourse around this has been gross, and around that story as well. But my first impression of it was the same as you guys are laying out here. I mean, I was sort of like, what the fuck are they doing? Like, this is insane. This is the job of the police to do this.
But then actually reading it, and seeing, actually — you know, The Washington Post has done some quite good reporting on this — I would make an argument, though, that this guy’s friends are doing interviews where they’re not disguising their voice, where they’re giving people’s handles away, where they’re giving a detailed timeline of things.
I mean, Shane Harris did this really involved story profiling, they even did a video interview with one of the guys on it, who’s laying out all of this detail about it. And it’s like, so many clues were put out there in the public domain by his own inner circle that the sort of pile on, where it’s like, oh, you know, The New York Times helped the Justice Department? I’m not even sure that that’s factually true. I think it’s a totally legit — Vanessa, what you were saying, I think it’s a completely legitimate discussion to have, where I probably would agree with you, in terms of like, what do you want to spend your time doing?
But I just felt like some of the narrative around it, both from the perspective of, that The New York Times committed this grave crime by naming him, and the narrative that journalists are the heroes hunting down this dangerous threat to national security, were kind of both off. That was my sense of it.
I mean, maybe I’m in the minority view of this within The intercept, and generally I would be like, all in on it. But I just felt like there was something a little bit off about that line in particular. That’s just to clarify.
VG: I want to just say a couple more things about this because this is really the part of the story that, with my media-crit hat on, I’ve really thought about this almost more than any other part of the story. Because I think this is a very tough situation for journalists who are working at big news organizations, and it’s a hot story, right? And this is not easy. So, a couple things I will say about.
First, The Post story that you mentioned, which included video in which a minor asked not to have his voice changed. And they got parental agreement for them to interview him. I would not have run that video, OK? They don’t know what’s going on. It’s fine. A lot of people don’t understand, and we have to think more like anthropologists, and be more really up there about informed consent. And have a duty of care for people who are not media savvy, do not know what the criminal justice system has in store for them.
That’s my view. Other people disagree with it. I would certainly get less scoops, and I always have, because of that belief. I do not think that they knew the consequences of that decision they were making.
And, when we reached out to The Post for our story about this, we got a reply from their head of public affairs saying, as it says in the story, we got the parental OK for the interview. And that was basically it. And it didn’t even go to the beginning of our questions about, OK, why did you then make the decision to run with this? Alright. I do wonder about it.
The second caveat that I think is really important that I just raised in this conversation somewhere is that we reached out to a lot of reporters who tweeted out OSINT analysis on this story. Not just to Toler, Aric Toler of Bellingcat, although we certainly reached out to him as well. We reached out to, like I said, The Post, to NPR, and others. We didn’t get anything back.
And I care about this, and I really don’t think we can have a full conversation about it without hearing from the journalists themselves, and I really hope at some point we can hear those voices. Because I wasn’t in those meetings, I wasn’t in that reporting myself, and I think it’s important to give people a chance to respond. Because it is very hard to tell from the outside what’s really going on in these cases.
JS: Yeah, fair enough. I think I’m also, I’m open to completely changing my stance if new facts emerge. I’m just being honest. I generally agree that there’s a concerning series of developments that took place there. I also was quite uneasy then, watching that video where it’s like, OK, the kids’ parents said that this is fine. And it’s like, yeah, but still, there’s potential legal consequences.
And also, I’m not sure that a kid of that age fully understands — You know, he clearly was someone who adored this guy, he said he was his best friend. And he’s talking to very seasoned national security journalists who really, really want to get information on this story.
And I listened to an interview that the reporters did on their own podcast about it, and they were saying, you know, we really made it clear to him how serious this is. At the end of the day, it’s a kid. And it’s a very, very tough call in this case, especially because it’s such an unorthodox leak, as far as the facts as we understand them are concerned. It’s a really unorthodox leak.
VG: Look, lot of people on online have come back and said, well, The Intercept should talk, you know? Because, like, look at what’s happened with us and our stories, and all the people you mentioned at the beginning of this podcast. What I would say is that, at The Intercept, we’ve thought as much as anyone in this business about source protection, and about the fact that you never know what could endanger a source, because we have been through it, OK?
We had a conversation internally about whether or not to publish these documents that had already appeared on Discord servers. Well, there were reporters for us at The Intercept who were really keen to publish these documents and be the first to publish them. And, in consultation with our editor-in-chief and our security people, we decided not to, because we do not know, we do not want to be part in any way of compromising some chain of custody in this that we don’t understand. Like, there’s too much we don’t know about these documents and the path they’ve traveled, basically.
So, anyway, I would just say that some of it may seem overboard to some, but we’ve thought a lot about these things here.
JS: I think it’s totally a fair point to raise, Vanessa, but the other part of this that we also know because of our experience at The Intercept is that the Justice Department, when they issue indictments against leakers and whistleblowers, those often are political documents intended to set a narrative, often to distort facts. To convict someone before they even go to trial. And, in the case of The Espionage Act, the government is able to hurl any number of allegations and assertions, and the defendant is almost entirely incapacitated to defend themselves, except on, did you do it or did you not? There is no, let me explain. There is no necessity defense. There is no justification defense.
So, we also know that, and that’s why at the very beginning I was saying the caveat about the Justice Department assertions, because we know from the indictment that was issued against Daniel Hale, we know from the indictment that was issued against Terry Albury, we know the indictment that was issued against Reality Winner. Those are political documents that are meant to set a political narrative about an individual that the state has determined must go down.
And, regardless of what Jack Teixeira’s motivations were, if he is indeed the person that did all of this, everyone should take everything that the Justice Department — whether Biden is in charge or Trump is in charge — you should take all of it with a mountainous grain of salt, and know that these are political documents intended to convict before trial.
VG: Yeah, I completely agree. And I would also say that people have been — in regard to who knew what, when — the government’s indictment really is a political document, as you said. It is a document from one side in what’s about to be a very contested matter in court. It is not a neutral document.
And so, as we read it, and see how they put their case together, we’re not going to know when things happened, and when they knew, and how the press played into it. We’re certainly not going to know that from their indictment.
And the final thing I would say, I want to come back to something that I started with, and I don’t know if this will be too much, but — Look, there’s a lot of lack of transparency in the operations of our national security state, and there has been for most of our lifetimes. And so, I feel as if, when there are areas of darkness in our knowledge, this is what’s liable to happen. And people who share this kind of information because they want to keep their friends informed, they’re not wrong that there are things going on that they don’t know. They don’t fully understand — That people don’t, that we don’t fully understand. Things are being done in our name that we don’t fully understand. To some degree, we’re being lied to.
I just feel like I have to respect the impulse there. They’re right about that. It then just kind of goes through a crazy process and comes out the other side in ways that are unrecognizable to some of us. But I do think that they are onto something, you know? We’re not seeing the full picture.
MH: On that note, we’ll leave it there. Thanks so much for joining us today, Vanessa.
VG: Thanks for having me.
MH: That was Vanessa Gezari, the National Security Editor for The Intercept.
[End credits music.]
JS: And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Intercepted is a production of The Intercept.
José Olivares is the lead producer. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Roger Hodge is Editor-in-Chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
If you want to support our work, you can go to theintercept.com/join. Your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.
If you haven’t already, please subscribe to Intercepted wherever you get your podcasts, and definitely do leave us a rating or a review, it helps other people to find us. If you want to give us feedback, especially if you want to send me hate mail, you can email us at email@example.com. That’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you so much for joining us. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill,
MH: And I’m Murtaza Hussein.