This year, news about a young US national guardsman made headlines for revealing top-secret documents with information on the War in Ukraine and U.S. espionage tactics (source). Intelligence leaks are almost always a scandal and leave policymakers scrambling to clear up the mess in the aftermath. The motivations and methods behind the most famous intelligence leaks of the past 50 years vary. The recent case of Jack Teixeira, however, is quite unique as his drive was ego and not necessarily political motivations.
1.0. What is an Intelligence Leak?
An intelligence leak is the spread of secret, often unfavourable, information from government agencies. As it is difficult to ascertain exactly where the information originated from, leaks within politics and governments are often classed as an intelligence leak even if it was not released directly from an intelligence agency.
Leaks can come from a variety of sources and, as will be discussed further in this article, for a number of reasons.
2.0. Cases of Intelligence Leaks
2.1. Jack Teixeira and the Discord Leaks
First and foremost is the recent instance of a 21-year-old national guardsman revealing top-secret intelligence on the Discord platform. The Guardian described the leak as one of the “worst leaks of US intelligence in at least a decade”. Jack Teixeira worked as an IT specialist in the intelligence wing of the Massachusetts National Guard (source). Teixeira was an administrator of the Discord group chat which discussed geopolitical affairs and wars.
Reports reveal that Teixeira first started posting documents back in October 2022, typing up transcripts of documents he read at work (source). The reaction was arguably not what Jack expected and he was met with little more than responses of “wow” to the intelligence leak (source). Members of the Discord group chat, ‘Thug Shaker Central’, were seemingly more interested in memes and offensive jokes than in top-secret government tactics. Consequently, Teixeira started bringing home documents to photograph and then upload online (source). Reports suspect that others started sharing the documents outside the chat as early as January (source). Russian Telegram channels then picked documents up and dispensed them further.
Jack Teixeira comes from a military family, so it is unlikely that his motivation to leak intelligence was to betray his country. Friends of his suggest that he was just looking to show off all the secrets he knew to a small circle of individuals (source). Authorities arrested Teixeira and charged him with two counts of the Espionage Act (source). He faces up to 15 years in prison as well as additional charges such as ‘Unauthorised transmission of Defence information’.
2.2. Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
In 1971, an analyst at the RAND Corporation leaked an intelligence report commissioned by the US military on the Vietnam War (source). Daniel Ellsberg had photocopied the report and then handed it to the New York Times (source). The intelligence leak was scathing and revealed that the administration of John F. Kennedy had actively helped to overthrow and assassinate South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. The report also had information on U.S. policy decisions between 1945 and 1967, most of which were shocking to the public.
Ellsberg had come to oppose the US war in Vietnam and he was critical of the government misleading the public about their involvement (source). Ellsberg claims that he had approached several members of Congress and went to the press only when none of them took action.
In 1971, Ellsberg faced a series of charges including violating the Espionage Act (source). However, authorities dismissed the charges in 1973 due to government misconduct.
2.3. Sarah Tisdall
Sarah Tisdall was a junior civil servant for the UK Foreign Secretary (source). In October 1983, Tisdall delivered two documents to the Guardian newspaper. Then-Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine had written the documents which revealed information on expected dates for a cruise missile delivery. Tisdall claims that the government were not holding Hesteltine accountable and therefore wanted to share with the public more information.
Authorities charged Tisdall on 9th January 1983 under Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act and she faced a custodial sentence of six months.
2.4. Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks
Wikileaks is a ‘journalistic enterprise’ which gained worldwide attention in 2009 and 2010 for publishing a set of documents from the US military and US intelligence (source). Intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, formerly Bradley Manning, leaked the documents whilst stationed in Iraq. The documents contained diplomatic cables, army logs, diaries and videos of airstrikes by the US military. The documents revealed human rights violations perpetrated by the US Army and the CIA as well as Iraqi and Afghan forces (source).
Manning claims that she acted with the intention of exposing human rights abuses and because she loves her country (source):
“What was bothering me was I [had] years of training and years of believing in something and then hitting the ground and then seeing it and feeling completely unprepared for how different [it was]…I wanted that discrepancy to be addressed somehow”
2.5. Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden was an intelligence consultant for the National Security Agency (NSA) and previously had a career in the CIA (source). In 2013, Snowden leaked information about surveillance programs which NSA was covertly running. Snowden gave the documents to The Washington Post and to The Guardian (source). The surveillance operations, according to the leaked information, had been running since 9/11 and were used to collect telephone data of US citizens illegally.
Authorities charged Snowden with stealing government property and violating the Espionage Act. In order to avoid arrest, Snowden fled the US and now resides in Russia where the government granted him citizenship in 2022. The US government could still prosecute Snowden if he returned to the States today.
3.0. Government Laws on Intelligence Leaking
Many governments have strict laws on intelligence leaks.
3.1. The UK Official Secrets Act 1911/1989
The UK passed ‘The Official Secrets Act’ in 1911 which sets out a series of offences related to espionage, sabotage and related crimes (source). The 1911 Act states that a person is committing the offence of spying if they obtain, collect, record, publish or communicate any secret information which may be in the form of a sketch, article, note, or document. This act also specifies that the leak may or may not be intended to be useful to an enemy. Legislatures reevised the Act in 1989 which also created offences connected with the unlawful disclosure of official information by government employees.
The Law Commission published a consultation paper in February 2018 which suggested ways to improve the law. The commission recommended increasing the maximum sentence length, possibly to 14 years (source). Currently, the maximum sentence length for violating the Official Secrets Act is 6 months to 2 years. A court found Sarah Tisdall guilty of violating this act and received a sentence of 6 months.
3.2. The US Espionage Act of 1917
- Obtaining information that they are not privy to
- Recording pictures of documents
- Copying any descriptions of information
The act also states that:
- The perpetrator must have intent or reason to believe that the information could be used against the United States or to the advantage of a foreign nation.
This is slightly different to the UK version which asserts that the perpetrator may or may not be aware that the information is useful to the enemy.
In 1951, two civilians were sentenced to death under the act. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg headed a spy ring that provided information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union (source). Teixeira, Ellsberg, Manning and Snowden were all charged with violating the Espionage Act.
Although it seems quite clear that Jack Teixeira did leak secret information to his group chat, it is more difficult to ascertain that his intention was that this information would be used against the United States. Further investigation is needed into ulterior motives but it is likely that he was doing it for notoriety. Could this mean that he is not guilty under the Espionage Act?
So why reveal secrets about your country? Why lose your job, and your freedom, for the sake of revealing all?
4.1. Whistleblowers: The Moral Motive
The motives around intelligence leaks vary, particularly whether you classify yourself as a ‘Whistleblower’. A whistleblower is:
“someone who reports waste, fraud, abuse corruption, or dangers to public health and safety to someone who is in the position to rectify the wrongdoing”
Whistleblowers are very much leaking information to benefit the public. They want to hold those in power accountable for any wrongdoings.
4.2. Edward Snowden Leaks
Edward Snowden very much classes himself as a whistleblower. In his book Permanent Record, Snowden states that his life inside the institute “has become incompatible with the principles developed in – and the loyalty owed to – the greater society outside it, to which the institutions should be accountable” (Permanent Record 2019, p. 238). He aimed to reveal to the public that the government were illegally collecting data and going to the press was the only way of doing so.
4.3. Daniel Ellsberg and Chelsea Manning leaks
Daniel Ellsberg and Chelsea Manning may also be considered whistleblowers as their motives lay in wanting to inform the public about wrongdoings within the military. It is difficult to assert for a fact whether Sarah Tisdall’s motives were purely moral. Although she does state that she wanted the Defence Secretary to be accountable, she also mentions ‘general disenchantment’ with the government and policies that were affecting her position as a civil servant. The information leaked was not regarding these policies and so it may have not been completely necessary. Her motives were therefore perhaps more personal.
4.4. The Money Motive
Money is a big incentive for many to become disloyal. Economic espionage occurs when a trade secret is stolen for the benefit of a foreign government in exchange for payment (source). Perhaps they want a more comfortable living and don’t see the harm in selling off a few documents. However, those who share information for money are usually easy for agencies to spot. Their lifestyle becomes more lucrative and so colleagues and authorities begin to question what could have led to this change (source). Journalist Garret Graff suggested the possibility of former-President Donald Trump selling off national secrets (source).
4.5. Jack Teixeira: The Ego Motive
It is fair to suggest that Teixeira was not a whistleblower. He was not driven by a motive to reveal injustices but by a desire to gain popularity. He wanted to show off to friends and acquaintances online (source). As far as public information shows at this point, he was looking to feel important in the discord chat. He was said to have more online friends than real friends (source) which may explain the need to feel adored.
Regardless of intent, it is unlikely that the U.S. government will go easy on Jack Teixeira. The leaks caused serious damage to the government’s reputation and posed a serious national security risk (source). Unlike whistleblowers like Snowden, Teixeira’s actions were reckless. He was not looking to act for the greater good but to make himself look impressive to his peers. It is therefore unlikely that even the public will be on his side.