On April 6, 2023, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) announced that it had opened an investigation into leaks of classified war documents that The New York Times described as detailing "American and NATO plans for building up the Ukrainian military ahead of a planned offensive against Russian troops."
As online sleuths would later untangle, these documents were originally part of a cache of hundreds of files shared by Massachusetts Air National Guard intelligence analyst Jack Teixeria to 30 or so members of a Discord server composed largely of fans of a guns and weapons YouTuber named Oxide. The documents, according to reporting from the Washington Post, were shared between late 2022 and mid-March 2023.
Discord is a social media platform that allows for live-streaming and chatting and originally catered to gamers. A portion of docs shared in the original Discord server, Thug Shaker Central, were shared in two other Discord channels before finding their way to 4chan, a controversial message board, and Telegram, a messaging app popular in Russia and Ukraine.
The circuitous route some of these documents took before entering into the public consciousness complicates claims made about these documents. In at least one instance the opaque path the documents took allowed bad actors to modify the documents to exaggerate Ukrainian battlefield losses. Here, Snopes explains what these documents are, where they came from, and why they appear to be — by and large — authentic.
Where Did the Documents Come From?
These documents, which contain both transcribed intelligence information and photographs of classified documents, were shared to the Discord server Thug Shaker Central by the group's moderator, a user named "OG." OG, who has since been identified as Jake Teixeria and who was arrested by federal authorities on April 13, posted this content for a period spanning end of 2022 to mid-march 2023.
According to reporting by the Post based on the testimony of a member of Thug Shaker Central, Teixeria's motivation for sharing the documents did not appear to be rooted in politics or a desire to be a whistleblower:
OG told the group he toiled for hours writing up the classified documents to share with his companions in the Discord server he controlled. The gathering spot had been a pandemic refuge, particularly for teen gamers locked in their houses and cut off from their real-world friends.
The members swapped memes, offensive jokes and idle chitchat. They watched movies together, joked around and prayed. But OG also lectured them about world affairs and secretive government operations. He wanted to "keep us in the loop," the member said, and seemed to think that his insider knowledge would offer the others protection from the troubled world around them. [...]
For all OG's disdain for the federal government, the member said there was no indication that he was acting in what he thought was the public interest by exposing official secrets. The classified documents were intended only to benefit his online family, the member said.
While Teixeria allegedly began by transcribing documents, the Post reported, he eventually progressed to photographing the documents, in part because his long, text-based posts were not generating the attention amongst the server's members as he wanted.
As reported by the open source investigative outlet Bellingcat, a portion of files posted to Thug Shaker Central were then shared by a member of that server to another Discord server dedicated to the fandom of a YouTuber named Wow Mao. According to Belingcat, over 30 documents from Thug Shaker Central were posted to the Wow Mao Discord server on March 1 and 2.
Based on reporting from Bellingcat (Snopes.com)
A still smaller portion — 10 documents — appeared on a Discord server named Minecraft Earth Map, dedicated to the game Minecraft, on March 4, 2023. For about a month, these documents were on a few people's radar. When portions of those 10 Minecraft documents appeared on either 4chan or Telegram on April 5, however, the Pentagon opened an investigation.
It is unknown if there is another source of some or all of the documents shared to Thug Shaker Central before it was deleted, and it is also unknown how many people saw or downloaded the files when they were on either the Wow Mao server (which has since been deleted) or the Minecraft Earth Map server.
There could be as yet unknown copies of the information elsewhere online, and there have already been efforts to muddy the waters by altering at least one document before it appeared on Russian social media.
What Kind of Information Is Contained in the Leak?
According to the Post, the documents "involved nearly every corner of the U.S. intelligence apparatus."
[The documents] describe intelligence activities at the National Security Agency, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, law enforcement agencies and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) — arguably the most secretive intelligence agency in the government, responsible for a multibillion dollar constellation of spy satellites.
The documents primarily concern the war in Ukraine and demonstrate how the United States is making assessments about the state of the conflict and where it's headed. That analysis informs major policy decisions by the Biden administration, including what weapons to provide Ukraine and how to respond to Russia's battlefield strategy.
The information's release is dangerous, the Post reported, because it potentially closes future avenues for intelligence gathering and because it reveals how deeply foreign intelligence assets have infiltrated the Russian military:
The documents … demonstrate what has long been understood but never publicly spelled out this precisely: The U.S. intelligence community has penetrated the Russian military and its commanders so deeply that it can warn Ukraine in advance of attacks and reliably assess the strengths and weaknesses of Russian forces.
Do These Documents Really Show 71,500 Ukrainian Troops Killed?
At least one of the photographs that apparently originated from the 10 images shared on the Minecraft Discord server appeared on both 4chan and Russian-language Telegram channels. The document appearing on Russian Telegram, however, was crudely doctored to inflate Ukrainian military deaths.
The 4chan version of the document reports "16k - 17.5k" Ukrainian troops killed in action and "35.5k - 43.5k" Russian troops. On the doctored version appearing in Russian Telegram, however, order of the digits were simply switched to read "61k - 71.5k" Ukrainian deaths, as observed by Bellingcat's Aric Toler:
At least one American outlet that reliably amplifies Russian disinformation — The Grayzone — ran headlines and stories based on the inflated numbers, reporting:
Perhaps the most notable piece of information contained in the leaked documents relates to military death tolls, with Ukrainian and Russian losses estimated at about a 4:1 ratio. According to one document, 71,500 Ukrainian troops have been killed in action.
This is not true. As explained by Bellingcat, the images bearing the 71,500 figure for Ukraine have tell-tale signs of digital manipulation.
Are the Documents Legit?
The Pentagon's response to the leak, as well as reporting on the 50 or so files that have been identified by journalists, suggests that the content that came from Teixeria is authentic. Teixeria, a Massachusetts Air Force National Guard intelligence analyst, had access to the documents included in these leaks.
The circuitous route some of these documents have taken through several different online communities makes it hard to determine if any given document alleged to be from that leak is unaltered and authentic. This fact will no doubt present challenges to both the intelligence communities and the online disinformation communities if and when more documents come to light.