- WASHINGTON POST
Leaker of U.S. Secret Documents Worked on Military Base, Friend Says
13:22 JST, April 14, 2023
The man behind a massive leak of U.S. government secrets that has exposed spying on allies, revealed the grim prospects for Ukraine’s war with Russia and ignited diplomatic fires for the White House is a young, charismatic gun enthusiast who shared highly classified documents with a group of far-flung acquaintances searching for companionship amid the isolation of the pandemic.
United by their mutual love of guns, military gear and God, the group of roughly two dozen – mostly men and boys – formed an invitation-only clubhouse in 2020 on Discord, an online platform popular with gamers. But they paid little attention last year when the man some call “OG” posted a message laden with strange acronyms and jargon. The words were unfamiliar, and few people read the long note, one of the members explained. But he revered OG, the elder leader of their tiny tribe, who claimed to know secrets that the government withheld from ordinary people.
The young member read OG’s message closely, and the hundreds more that he said followed on a regular basis for months. They were, he recalled, what appeared to be near-verbatim transcripts of classified intelligence documents that OG indicated he had brought home from his job on a “military base,” which the member declined to identify. OG claimed he spent at least some of his day inside a secure facility that prohibited cellphones and other electronic devices, which could be used to document the secret information housed on government computer networks or spooling out from printers. He annotated some of the hand-typed documents, the member said, translating arcane intel-speak for the uninitiated, such as explaining that “NOFORN” meant the information in the document was so sensitive it must not be shared with foreign nationals.
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.
“He’s a smart person. He knew what he was doing when he posted these documents, of course. These weren’t accidental leaks of any kind,” the member said.
The transcribed documents OG posted traversed a range of sensitive subjects that only people who had undergone months-long background checks would be authorized to see. There were top-secret reports about the whereabouts and movements of high-ranking political leaders and tactical updates on military forces, the member said. Geopolitical analysis. Insights into foreign governments’ efforts to interfere with elections. “If you could think it, it was in those documents.”
In those initial posts, OG had given his fellow members a small sip of the torrent of secrets that was to come. When rendering hundreds of classified files by hand proved too tiresome, he began posting hundreds of photos of documents themselves, an astonishing cache of secrets that has been steadily spilling into public view over the past week, disrupting U.S. foreign policy and aggravating America’s allies.
This account of how detailed intelligence documents intended for an exclusive circle of military leaders and government decision-makers found their way into and then out of OG’s closed community is based in part on several lengthy interviews with the Discord group member, who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity. He is under 18 and was a young teenager when he met OG. The Post obtained consent from the member’s mother to speak to him and to record his remarks on video. He asked that his voice not be obscured.
His account was corroborated by a second member who read many of the same classified documents shared by OG, and who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. Both members said they know OG’s real name as well as the state where he lives and works but declined to share that information while the FBI is hunting for the source of the leaks. The investigation is in its early stages, and the Pentagon has set up its own internal review led by a senior official.
“An interagency effort has been stood up, focused on assessing the impact these photographed documents could have on U.S. national security and on our Allies and partners,” Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said in a statement.
Discord said in a statement that it is cooperating with law enforcement and has declined to comment further.
The Post also reviewed approximately 300 photos of classified documents, most of which have not been made public; some of the text documents OG is said to have written out; an audio recording of a man the two group members identified as OG speaking to his companions; and chat records and photographs that show OG communicating with them on the Discord server.
The young member was impressed by OG’s seemingly prophetic ability to forecast major events before they became headline news, things “only someone with this kind of high clearance” would know. He was by his own account enthralled with OG, who he said was in his early to mid-20s.
“He’s fit. He’s strong. He’s armed. He’s trained. Just about everything you can expect out of some sort of crazy movie,” the member said.
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 member seemed drawn to OG’s bravado and his skill with weapons. He felt a certain kinship with a man he described as “like an uncle” and, on another occasion, as a father figure.
“I was one of the very few people in the server that was able to understand that these [documents] were legitimate,” the member said, setting himself apart from the others who mostly ignored OG’s posts.
“It felt like I was on top of Mount Everest,” he said. “I felt like I was above everyone else to some degree and that . . . I knew stuff that they didn’t.”
‘A tightknit family’
The member met OG about four years ago, on a different server for fans of Oxide, a popular YouTuber who streams videos about guns, body armor and military hardware. He said a group of avid members found the server too crowded and wanted a quieter place to talk about video game tactics, so they broke off into their own, small group.
More like-minded Oxide fans joined the private Discord server, which came to be named “Thug Shaker Central,” and whose membership OG would effectively control as the administrator.
“We all grew very close to each other, like a tightknit family,” the member said. “We depended on each other.” He said that other members, and OG especially, counseled him during bouts of depression and helped to steady him emotionally. “There was no lack of love for each other.”
OG was the undisputed leader. The member described him as “strict.” He enforced a “pecking order” and expected the others to read closely the classified information he had shared. When their attention waned, he got angry.
Late last year, a peeved OG fired off a message to all the members of the server. He had spent nearly an hour every day writing up “these long and drawn-out posts in which he’d often add annotations and explanations for stuff that we normal citizens would not understand,” the member said. His would-be pupils were more interested in YouTube videos about battle gear.
“He got upset, and he said on multiple occasions, if you guys aren’t going to interact with them, I’m going to stop sending them.”
That’s when OG changed tactics. Rather than spend his time copying documents by keyboard, he took photographs of the genuine articles and dropped them in the server. These were more vivid and arresting documents than the plain text renderings. Some featured detailed charts of battlefield conditions in Ukraine and highly classified satellite images of the aftermath of Russian missile strikes on Ukrainian electrical facilities. Others sketched the potential trajectory of North Korean ballistic nuclear missiles that could reach the United States. Another featured photographs of the Chinese spy balloon that floated across the country in February, snapped from eye-level, probably by a U-2 spy plane, along with a diagram of the balloon and the surveillance technology attached to it.
OG shared several documents a week, beginning late last year. Posting pictures to the server took less time. But it also exposed OG to greater risk. In the background of some images, they could see items and furniture that they recognized from the room where OG spoke to them via video on the Discord channel – the kind of clues that could prove useful for federal investigators.
The dramatic and yet nonchalant presentation also reminded the group that OG could lay his hands on some of the most closely guarded intelligence in the U.S. government. “If you had classified documents, you’d want to flex at least a little bit, like hey, I’m the big guy,” the member said. “There is a little bit of showing off to friends, but as well as wanting to keep us informed.”
In a sense, OG had created a virtual mirror image of the secretive facility where he spent his working hours. Inside the Discord server, he was the ultimate arbiter of secrecy, and he allowed his companions to read truths that “normal citizens” could not.
A breach of secrecy
The photographs of printed secret documents now seen by millions may offer clues to the federal agents searching for OG. Reality Winner, who leaked secret National Security Agency documents to the news website the Intercept in 2017, was compromised by secret markings on printouts that helped narrow the search. OG’s documents look to have been printed on ordinary paper and were creased after having been folded in four. Sometimes, the photographs OG took of the documents appeared to have been taken over a bed. Items such as Gorilla Glue, a scope manual and nail clippers appeared in the margins. Other previously unreported images reviewed by The Post showed printed documents lying on top of a glowing red keyboard.
The breadth of the military and intelligence reports was extensive. For months, OG regularly uploaded page after page of classified U.S. assessments, offering a window into how deeply American intelligence had penetrated the Russian military, showing that Egypt had planned to sell Russia tens of thousands of rockets and suggesting that Russian mercenaries had approached Turkey, a NATO ally, to buy weapons to fight against Ukraine.
At least one of the documents appeared to have been printed from Intellipedia, a data-sharing system that intelligence agencies use to collaborate and post reports and articles.
The documents were another lesson for younger members in how OG thought the world really worked. The member said OG wasn’t hostile to the U.S. government, and he insisted that he was not working on behalf of any country’s interests. “He is not a Russian operative. He is not a Ukrainian operative,” the member said. The room on the server where he posted the documents was called “bear-vs-pig,” meant to be a snide jab at Russia and Ukraine, and an indication that OG took no sides in the conflict.
But OG had a dark view of the government. The young member said he spoke of the United States, and particularly law enforcement and the intelligence community, as a sinister force that sought suppress its citizens and keep them in the dark. He ranted about “government overreach.”
OG told his online companions that the government hid horrible truths from the public. He claimed, according to the members, that the government knew in advance that a white supremacist intended to go on a shooting rampage at a Buffalo supermarket in May 2022. The attack left 10 dead, all of them Black, and wounded three more. OG said federal law enforcement officials let the killings proceed so they could argue for increased funding, a baseless notion that the member said he believes and considers an example of OG’s penetrating insights about the depth of government corruption.
OG’s group itself had a dark side. The Discord server’s eventual name, Thug Shaker Central, was a racist allusion, and signaled to members that they were free to hurl epithets and crude jokes. The young member expressed some regret for their behavior but seemed to shrug off the offensive remarks as a clumsy attempt at humor.
It was not “a fascist recruiting server,” he told The Post.
One thing the members were not supposed to do was talk about the secrets OG had shared with them, including the classified documents.
“Most people in the server were smart enough as to kind of realize that . . . they shouldn’t be posted anywhere else,” the member said. And yet, the group contained foreign citizens – including from Russia and Ukraine, the members said – a defiance of the NOFORN warning printed across the top of so many documents OG shared.
The member estimated that the server hosted people from Europe, Asia and South America. “Just about every walk of life.” Of the roughly 25 active members who had access to the bear-vs-pig channel, about half were located overseas, the member said. The ones who seemed most interested in the classified material claimed to be from mostly “Eastern Bloc and those post-Soviet countries,” he said. “The Ukrainians had interest as well,” which the member chalked up to interest in the war ravaging their homeland.
For years, U.S. counterintelligence officials have eyed gaming platforms as a magnet for spies. Russian intelligence operatives have been suspected of befriending gamers who they believe work for intelligence agencies and encouraging them to divulge classified information, a senior U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
It’s not clear whether any of those efforts have been successful. But if foreign operatives finagled an invitation to OG’s server, they would have been free to view the documents and make copies of them, as some members did.
The server sprouts a leak
All winter, OG uploaded documents to the server. No one talked about sharing them elsewhere. Then, unbeknown to the group, on Feb. 28, another teenage user from the Thug Shaker Central server began posting several dozen photographs showing classified documents on another Discord server affiliated with the YouTuber “wow_mao.” Some of the documents offered detailed assessments of Ukraine’s defense capabilities and showed how far U.S. intelligence could see into Russia’s military command.
On March 4, 10 documents appeared on “Minecraft Earth Map,” a Discord server focused on the popular video game. A user operating the account that posted the smaller tranche of images told The Post they obtained them on wow_mao.
Secret and top-secret documents were now available to thousands of Discord users, but the leak wouldn’t come to the attention of U.S. authorities for another month. Meanwhile, OG stopped sharing images in the middle of March. On April 5, classified documents assessing the war in Ukraine were posted on Russian Telegram channels and the message board platform 4chan, and began migrating to Twitter. One image, showing a March 1 Ukraine status update, had been crudely doctored to inflate the number of Ukrainian casualties and downplay those on the Russian side.
The next day, shortly before the New York Times first reported on the leak, OG came into the server “frantic, which is unusual for him,” the member said.
“He said something had happened, and he prayed to God that this event would not happen. . . . But now it’s in God’s hands.”
Not a whistleblower
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.
“I would definitely not call him a whistleblower. I would not call OG a whistleblower in the slightest,” he said, resisting comparisons to Edward Snowden, who shared classified documents about government surveillance with journalists.
Remarkably, the member said he has been in touch with OG in the past few days, even as an FBI manhunt is underway and the Pentagon launches its own inquiry into the leaks. After shuttering the Thug Shaker Central server, OG moved the community to another server to communicate with his online family.
He “seemed very confused and lost as to what to do,” the member said. “He’s fully aware of what’s happening and what the consequences may be. He’s just not sure on how to go about solving this situation. . . . He seems pretty distraught about it.”
In his final message to his companions, OG admonished them to “keep low and delete any information that could possibly relate to him,” the member said. That included any copies of the classified documents OG had shared.
When it dawned on them that OG was in grave peril and intended to disappear, the members of Thug Shaker Central “full-on sobbed and cried,” the young member said. “It is like losing a family member.”
In hours of interviews, he continued to express admiration and loyalty to a man who may have endangered his young followers by allowing them to see and posses classified information, exposing them to potential federal crimes.
“I figured he would not be putting us in any sort of harm’s way,” the member said.
The exposure of the documents has severed friendships and cut him off from the man who buoyed his confidence and made him feel safe. The member said that the stress of the loss, coupled with the enormity of the leaks, has left him worried and sleepless.
Now he says he believes that the world should see the secrets OG passed along to a tiny group. He argued that the public deserves to know how intelligence agencies spend their tax dollars, and was particularly outraged that the documents show U.S. surveillance of foreign allies.
But what the young man regarded as a revelation will come as no surprise to the countries whose officials the U.S. has been monitoring for decades. While rarely discussed, and embarrassing for Washington when exposed, it’s widely understood that the U.S. intelligence community monitors many friendly governments, just as foreign allies try to do the same.
Thousands of military personnel and government employees around OG’s age, working entry-to-low-level positions, could plausibly have access to classified documents like the ones he allegedly shared, according to U.S. officials and experts who have seen the documents reported in the media. Despite what his young followers thought, OG would have had no special knowledge compared with his peers. He possessed no special power to predict events. Rather, he appears to have persuaded some highly impressionable teenagers that he’s a modern-day gamer meets Jason Bourne.
The member said he’s confident the authorities will find OG. But when they do, he won’t be charged. Instead, he believes, OG will be imprisoned without due process at Guantánamo Bay or disappeared to a “black site,” if he’s not “assassinated” for what he knows.
The member, as well as the OG follower who corroborated his account, found no fault in their leader’s actions and instead said they blame the teen who posted the documents on the wow_mao server for wrecking their community.
“Maybe we should have had better opsec,” the member said, harnessing the jargon of military and intelligence personnel for “operations security.”
He insisted said he will not divulge OG’s identity or location to law enforcement until he is captured or can flee the United States. “I think I might be detained eventually. . . . I think there might be a short investigation on how I knew this guy and they’ll try to get something out of me. They might try to threaten me with prison time if I don’t reveal their identity.”
To date, no federal law enforcement officials have contacted the young group member. Asked why he was prepared to help OG even at the risk of his own freedom, the young man replied without hesitation: “He was my best friend.”
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