Edited and with a coda written by Sam Thielman
"NATIONAL SECURITY" LEAKS typically sit on a continuum between Harmless and Valorous. I don't care about the inevitable whining of Security State mouthpieces and those who identify with them. Leaks don't actually stop intelligence-sharing with allies, because as we've discussed, intelligence-sharing with allies is a matter of national interest, not a pact to avoid embarrassment. Such whining ultimately cashes out as an insistence that the Security State enact its violent, deceitful prerogatives unimpeded by public accountability.
For instance: Hours before we at The Guardian revealed that the NSA for years illegally collected Americans' phone data in bulk, senior officials at the NSA, FBI, NSC and Office of The Director of National Intelligence told me that doing so risked exposing Americans to violent attacks. It's been 10 years and no such thing has happened, because it was never going to happen. All that story did was reveal the NSA’s systematic violation of Americans' constitutional right to privacy. But those are the sort of lies you encounter when the Security State fears its veil of secrecy will lift, putting on public display all manner of iniquity, illegality, incompetence, self-dealing or deception.
For the past week, we've heard a lot about a series of leaks mainly but not exclusively concerned with the Ukraine war. These have appeared on Discord, 4Chan and other—how to put this—non-traditional outlets for security disclosure. And they're something different than the Snowden leaks, Manning leaks or, say, the Vault 7 hack.
These documents don't show violations of Americans' constitutional rights or, for that matter, violations of foreigners' rights (or lives). They're instead classified portraits of the way the war is proceeding, without the spin provided for public consumption, and they don't always gore the same ox. Some of them show Ukraine's defenses and counteroffensives in worse shape than NATO tends to portray—although it's worth remembering that Iraq proved disaster can be fuel for escalation rather than withdrawal. Others show thorough U.S. penetration of the Russian military apparatus. Still more suggest that the Mossad fanned the flames of the mass protests against Benjamin Netanyahu's evisceration of the Israeli judiciary.
Divergent interests are getting skewered here. They don't seem to serve the motivations of either whistleblowers determined to expose internal U.S. wrongdoing or hostile-state propaganda campaigns determined to stymie U.S. objectives. That suggests a third kind of agenda. And on Wednesday night, the Washington Post published a piece that points to a different and uncomfortably familiar motivation for the leaks: dominating the group chat.
On a Discord server with the charming name Thug Shaker Central, someone with the handle "OG"—we'll soon see why that's a chef's-kiss—was what the Post calls "the ultimate arbiter of secrecy, and he allowed his companions to read truths that 'normal citizens' could not." OG had access to Intellipedia, which is somewhere between Wikipedia and Reddit for super-secret squirrels, and that seems to have been the wellspring of what he told the server. (In 2021, we at FOREVER WARS published a document from Intellipedia.) OG acted in an extreme fashion, but in a way I find familiar from my own dealings with people who aren't trigger-pullers inside the vast national-security apparatus: He was a gatekeeper for the normies, offering scraps of what the government is keeping from them, and establishing himself as the arbiter of hidden truth and motivation. This is what happens when people who live to post have clearances.
Like many such people, he was triggered by his interlocutors not dropping everything to agree with his points. “He got upset, and he said on multiple occasions, if you guys aren’t going to interact with [his posts], I’m going to stop sending them," a member of the server told the Post, characterizing OG's contributions as "long and drawn-out posts in which he’d often add annotations and explanations for stuff that we normal citizens would not understand."
None of this is to say that OG doesn't have ideology. Boy, does he ever! I'll let the Post's Shane Harris and Samuel Oakford explain:
In a video seen by The Post, the man who the member said is OG stands at a shooting range, wearing safety glasses and ear coverings and holding a large rifle. He yells a series of racial and antisemitic slurs into the camera, then fires several rounds at a target.
The early—I reiterate early, there's a lot more to be discovered here—portrait of OG is that he's a right-wing chud who didn't leak internal secrets to disrupt operations, change policy or aid a foreign power, hostile or friendly. "He is not a Russian operative. He is not a Ukrainian operative… [and]I would definitely not call him a whistleblower," someone from the server assessed. First and foremost, OG wanted to "benefit his online family."
In other words, OG didn't leak for patriotism, principle, or even money. This motherfucker leaked for that most ineffable thing, something nonmaterial but nevertheless hyper-real in the logic of the poster, and particularly the right-wing-chud poster: clout.
WHO LEAKS FOR CLOUT? A person at low rungs of the national-security enterprise who probably isn't going to get much further, and who is drawn to the power they can accrue by playing the All-Seeing Oz. As I'm writing this, news broke that OG is likely a 21-year old Massachusetts Air National Guard IT tech. And as we were editing this, it was reported that the guy got arrested. Now you see why it's hilarious that he goes by OG.
Not to be dramatic, but OG here is the future of "national security" leaks. I'm not saying there won't also be Mannings, Snowdens, and Alburys, because there will. There will definitely also be Cozy Bears and Fancy Bears. But the national-security enterprise has to be understood as an economy, not just a geopolitical instrument. Reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin a decade ago called that economy Top Secret America, and estimated at employing almost a million people. Fast-forward several years, and a recent CNN piece pegged 2.8 million people as having some kind of access to classified information, with nearly 1.2 million of those having top-secret clearances. On Thursday, CNN reported that the Pentagon plans on stovepiping more classified information in response to those leaks. But the Security State is a growth economy, and it will not get in the way of its own economic interests.
With the advance of time comes the maturation and perpetuation of broken-brain internet gremlins like myself. These are the people who will fill those Top Secret America positions—not only them, but they're going to be included. Enormous differences of politics aside, there is a certain continuum between OG and Reality Winner, who was sentenced to prison for leaking NSA information about Russian penetration of voting software because she was sick of Glenn Greenwald calling the whole thing a hoax. Posters are going to post; and punitive measures—even criminal penalties—won't stop those supremely determined to make the chat recognize the power of their posts.
Now, personally? I think the story of OG is that the U.S. military remains a welcome employment opportunity to people who like to, as the Post put it, yell a series of racial and antisemitic slurs into the camera before busting off a bunch of shots. But the Pentagon simply does not want to deal with that.
AND NOW, SAM wants to say a few words.
A few years ago I was walking down the street in Manhattan's financial district when a beggar sitting on the sidewalk accosted me. I tried the usual thing of not making eye contact and shaking my head, but he persisted. Then he shouted something that wounded me so deeply I don’t think I’ll ever fully heal: the name of the church we had attended together.
Yusuf (I’ve changed his name) was an older man from the Middle East. I don’t remember where. He had regularly attended a writing workshop I led at a little Episcopalian church on the Upper West Side as part of a “coffeehouse” the church held every Tuesday evening—part AA-style chairs-in-a-circle meeting, part group meal. Then as now I didn’t especially love crowds but I wanted to help with the effort the church led to break down barriers between the wealthier and poorer parishioners.
So I showed up after the meet-and-greet session every Tuesday and led a little writing workshop modeled on a class I’d taken during my expensive Ivy League MFA, which at that point I was still paying off, and listened to the folks who wanted to participate. As you might expect, some had untreated psychiatric problems and had fixated on a slight or a misunderstanding that marked (for them) the beginning of the circumstances that had led them to the doors of the church in search of a hot meal in the first place, and delivered hard-to-understand disquisitions when it was their turn to speak. Some put in real effort; one won a writing prize for her work over several years of Tuesday-evening sessions. Another, a man about my age, wrote gripping, Stephen King-style openings for stories he was never able to finish because he had an addiction and tenuous housing. Because he was Black, very tall and had a criminal record, he sometimes found himself shunted off to Rikers Island for offenses like jumping a subway turnstile since it had become commonly known that he couldn’t pay any fines.
Once, I remember my regulars were invited by a new church leader to tell their own stories, rather than to write poetry or flash fiction from one of my prompts. Yusuf said that he was very proud of his life, his family, whom I never met, and his work. “I have lived the American Dream,” he said. I learned, quickly, that the people coming to my “writing” workshop could have cared less about writing; what they wanted was to be heard. So I joined them and their friends in listening.
It was a conservative church in many respects. But I’ll always remember the example of its efforts not just to feed and clothe people without permanent housing or socially acceptable substance addictions, but to invite them to participate in the work of the congregation as peers and leaders.
I wish I could truthfully say that the experience of deep religious fellowship and close conversation with these folks had made me a better steward of my homeless neighbors’ well-being. It didn’t. The thing that genuinely made me aware of the extremely poor around me, in my field of vision, was Yusuf, on Fulton Street, justifiably furious with me for treating him the way everyone else treated him, from a position of authority I’d never even considered acknowledging.
LAST WEEK, a tech executive named Bob Lee was stabbed to death on the streets of San Francisco. Over the next several days, quite a few awful people found some of Lee's antiracist tweets and used them to blame him for his own murder, which they were certain had been committed by one of San Francisco’s many homeless people. “Maybe if he had been a bit more racist he would still be alive,” tweeted one of the various creeps and freaks Elon Musk has let back onto Twitter, this one with “National Socialist” in his bio.
Musk himself weighed in, as he apparently cannot stop himself from doing on every conceivable topic. “Many people I know have been severely assaulted,” he tweeted. “Violent crime in SF is horrific and even if attackers are caught, they are often released immediately. Is the city taking stronger action to incarcerate repeat violent offenders @BrookeJenkinsSF?" (Jenkins is the current San Francisco DA, installed after the city’s wealthy residents poured money and lies into the recall of progressive Chesa Boudin.)
The New York Times ran what I’m sure it considered an evenhanded analysis of the “debate” between people who wanted to blame San Francisco’s poor for a murder in which no one had yet been charged, and people who thought that was maybe a little premature. On the one hand, violent crime was down; on the other, homeless people exist. Right-wing outlets, from mainstream networks like Fox News to decorous journals of elite opinion like The National Review to sites by and for The People Under the Stairs, like Rebel News and The Post Millennial and Breitbart, all found the spectacle of a rich antiracist getting killed too irresistible. Perhaps they shouldn’t have, but then again, who’s going to stop them, or suggest to anyone in charge that there ought to be some sort of public consequence for this sort of public malpractice?
But on Thursday, the police arrested a tech entrepreneur, this one at his home in Emeryville, which the San Francisco Chronicle described as "a former steam car manufacturing plant converted to live-work lofts." The man allegedly knew Lee.
Look, I’m just a hack, and I’m not even a fancy hack. Nobody in my family is in journalism. For twenty years I’ve strung together a living by talking not to people I know from college, but to people on the margins. It’s inconceivable to me that you’d try to learn the truth about the exercise of power any other way. That’s the only way I’ve ever been able to scoop anybody. The people who actually need journalism, and whose lives journalism can improve, are much poorer than journalists, but journalists tend to be interested exclusively in people richer than they are. Power always looks up.