Tracing the concept of homo sacer from antiquity to modern life, philosopher Giorgio Agamben cites the ancient Roman lexicographer Festus, who defined the term as someone “whom the people have judged on account of a crime. It is not permitted to sacrifice this man, yet he who kills him will not be condemned for homicide.” Homo sacer is thus an outlaw who is free to be pursued by vigilante lynch mobs but who, crucially, cannot be martyred. The mass media’s treatment of the alleged Pentagon leaker appears to have taken this conceit to heart, codifying him as a justifiable target for persecution, to be “tracked” and “hunt[ed] down.”
Over and over, the mainstream press has employed a rhetoric of exclusion, stripping the leaker bare of any protections that might be afforded to a whistleblower. He is not, they tell us ad nauseum, an Edward Snowden or a Chelsea Manning. “It does not seem to involve a principled whistleblower, calling attention to wrongdoing or a coverup,” according to a Washington Post editorial. The “far-right” is incorrectly calling him a whistleblower, claims the New York Times. This view lets the outlet chastise those who attribute different motives to the alleged leaker, Jack Teixeira, while simultaneously distancing itself from the “far-right,” despite its own notably pro-law enforcement slant.
The motives of Teixeira, a 21-year-old Air National Guardsman, are important and newsworthy. They are also not fully known. Most press accounts have relied solely on interviews with minors who hung out in the same chatrooms as Teixeira. These sources have painted a compelling picture, but many others, including Teixeira himself, have not yet spoken publicly.
Why, just because the leaker didn’t bring his material directly to a news outlet, wasn’t he deserving of either protection or being cultivated as a future source?
Whatever his motives may have been, they don’t change the outcome of the leak: the release of informative documents that have underpinned major news stories in the same outlets that eagerly joined the search for their source. Reporters have argued that since Teixeira wasn’t a whistleblower, he was fair game to be hunted by law enforcement agencies and exposed by the press. This rationale conveniently sidesteps a key question: Why, just because the leaker didn’t bring his material directly to a news outlet, wasn’t he deserving of either protection or being cultivated as a future source? Why, instead, was he viewed solely or primarily as quarry?
The media’s claim that Teixeira is not a whistleblower has been based in part on the environment in which the documents were disclosed and the relatively small number of people with whom they were originally shared. Based on testimony from others in a chatroom, the Times wrote that the documents Teixeira allegedly shared, far from being disseminated in the public interest, “were never meant to leave their small corner of the internet.” Likewise, the Post claimed that “the classified documents were intended only to benefit his online family,” which Bellingcat estimated as having around 20 active users out of what the Times later said was about 50 total members. Yet on Friday, the Times reported that Teixeira had previously shared sensitive documents on another chat server that was publicly listed and had about 600 users. In their haste to reveal further possibly incriminating evidence against him, the authors seem not to have paused to reflect on how this wider distribution, if accurate, might undermine their earlier argument.
“Keeping secrets is essential to a functioning government,” the Post editorialized shortly after the documents began being covered in the mainstream press. “Breaking the laws for a psychic joyride is a despicable betrayal of trust and oaths.” Meanwhile, over on the news side, the paper churned out numerous articles revealing those very same secrets, some accompanied by unredacted copies of the leaked documents themselves.
Not to be outdone, the Times has deployed language that dehumanizes the leaker, evoking images of a threatening wild animal. The reporters don’t unpack the full significance of this hunting metaphor, which presumably ends with a slaughtered animal presented as a trophy. In the wake of the Times story naming the alleged leaker before his arrest (which has since been replaced by another story), Twitter was in full media victory lap mode, with reporters patting themselves on the back for their promptness in deanonymizing Teixeira.
More recently, however, the trophy hunters have begun to deny culpability for even the possibility that their investigations provided material assistance to the government.
Christiaan Triebert, a former Bellingcat staffer and a co-author of the Times investigation that initially named Teixeira, issued a disavowal of liability, explaining that the Times reporting team went to the suspect’s house in the hope of talking to him, but he wasn’t there, so instead, they interviewed his mother and, later, his stepfather. At one point, a man matching Teixeira’s description drove onto the property in a pickup truck, but upon seeing the journalists, he promptly departed.
Yet Triebert’s self-defense doesn’t entirely follow. “There seems to be a misconception that our story naming Teixeira led to his arrest,” Triebert tweeted. “That’s simply not the case.” But how does he know? Certainty about this only seems possible from inside the Department of Justice effort to find Teixeira, which isn’t where Triebert claims to stand. Triebert did not respond to a request for comment.
Aric Toler, a current Bellingcat staffer and the principle author of the Times investigation that first named Teixeira, has likewise been quick to dismiss the possibility that his reporting aided the government’s investigation: “This should have been obvious, but no, our story naming the Pentagon/Discord leaker didn’t help the feds find him. They already knew at least a day before we identified him.” He cites the FBI affidavit, employing zero skepticism about a government document that represents one side in what is about to become a contested legal process. Toler did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
The narrow parameters of these denials are telling. Toler has been careful to focus his disdain on the notion that the Times story naming the leaker helped lead to his arrest. But that was not the first time Toler wrote about the leaker. Four days earlier, on April 9, Toler published a story about the leak on Bellingcat’s site in which he named for the first time the Discord chat server where the documents seemed to have originally been leaked. In that piece, Toler also supplied the username of a member of the chat server where the documents were shared, explaining, “The Thug Shaker Central server was originally named after its original founder, one member of the server with the username ‘Vakhi’ told Bellingcat.”
These two pieces of information — the name of the server and the name of one of its users — could have led the FBI to issue a request to Discord to provide identifying information about the user as well as about the owner of the chat server.
The FBI’s affidavit states that on April 10, the day after Toler’s Bellingcat story was posted online, “the FBI interviewed a user of Social Media Platform 1 (‘User 1’).” That user, who is not named in the affidavit, told the FBI that “an individual using a particular username (the ‘Subject Username’) began posting what appeared to be classified information on Social Media Platform.” The “Subject Username,” the affidavit explains, refers to Teixeira.
As with all documentation produced by government investigators, the FBI affidavit must be taken with an iceberg-sized lump of salt. However, it is at least as possible that Toler’s Bellingcat story provided a material lead for the federal investigation as that investigators already knew about Vakhi and Thug Shaker Central before reading it.
Regardless of whether journalists actually provided material assistance to federal investigators, it is concerning that there has been so little public discussion of or reflection by the reporters involved on the ethical ramifications of their work.
After talking to people who knew Teixeira from the Discord server, the investigatory paths of the FBI and Toler diverged. The FBI appears to have identified the suspected leaker based on server records it requested from the platform, while Toler has revealed that he was able to identify the individual by leveraging information supplied by minors.
Though Toler stated that his sources were “all kids,” neither he nor the Times has made any mention of whether they obtained parental consent for these interviews. UNICEF guidelines state that consent from both the child and their guardian should be established prior to conducting an interview and that the intended use of the interview should be made apparent. It’s not clear whether Toler informed the minors that he was going to use clues they offered, like which video games the alleged leaker liked to play, to out Teixeira. The Times did not respond to a request for comment.
In a since-deleted tweet, Times military correspondent David Philipps effectively threatened that if you don’t leak to the Times, the paper will instead “work feverishly” to identify you. Nuanced or not, this tweet perfectly summarizes the media’s messaging regarding this case: Only those who reach out to a media outlet are worthy of protection; those who leak information via other means risk sharing the fate of homo sacer, a traitor to be hunted down.