Pentagon leak spotlights surprising interplay between gaming and military secrets

Pentagon leak spotlights surprising interplay between gaming and military secrets


The recent leak of classified US documents on social media platform Discord seemingly caught many at the Pentagon by surprise. But it wasn’t the first time that a forum popular with online gamers had hosted military secrets, underlining a major challenge for the US national security establishment and platforms alike.

As recently as January 2023, someone on a forum for fans of the video game War Thunder reportedly published confidential information on an F-16 fighter jet. That followed reports of at least three other occasions since 2021 when War Thunder fans posted documents on British, French and Chinese tanks. These cases – which Axios also reported on in the context of the Discord leaks – typically involved users boasting of their inside knowledge of military equipment and claiming to want to make the game more realistic.

Gaijin Entertainment, the company that produces War Thunder, took the posts down after forum moderators flagged them.

The recent leaks on Discord exposed a shortcoming in how the US government alerts platforms that they are hosting sensitive or classified information, according to Discord’s top lawyer.

There is currently “no structured process,” for the government to communicate whether documents posted on social media are classified or even authentic, Clint Smith, Discord’s chief legal officer, said in an April 14 statement that described classified military documents as a “significant, complex challenge” for Discord and other platforms.

The episodes point to vexing challenges for social media platforms like Discord – where 21-year Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira allegedly began posting classified information in December – and the US military, which has used Discord for recruiting.

Discord and other platforms face a difficult balancing act in giving young gamers the space to be themselves while also detecting when they post illegal content.

“A lot of these guys find their social circles in these online gaming spaces, and that can be great,” said Jennifer Golbeck, a professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies. “But if the culture of the platform shifts to rewarding things that you shouldn’t be doing, it can hard if you’re really invested in that that social group to give that up.”

Teixeira allegedly posted the documents – which included sensitive US intelligence on the war in Ukraine – to a private Discord chat in an attempt to look after his online friends and keep them informed, one member of the chatroom has claimed.

The Pentagon is trying to tap into online youth culture without it backfiring spectacularly, as it allegedly did with Teixeira.

An Air Force Gaming program that allows service members to compete in video game leagues to, according to a Pentagon press release“build morale and mental health resiliency,” has more than 28,000 members. The top of the Air Force Gaming website includes a link to join the program’s Discord channel.

There were signs that Pentagon officials were growing wary of information young service members might share on Discord even before news of Teixeira’s alleged leak broke.

“Don’t post anything in Discord that you wouldn’t want seen by the general public,” reads a pamphlet published by US Army Special Operations Command in March.

That the warning came as classified documents allegedly shared by Teixeira sat on Discord appears to be entirely a coincidence; many US officials appeared unaware of the leak until news of it broke on April 6.

“Past incidents show how hard it is to stop these leaks,” said Casey Brooks, an Army veteran and video game fan.

“This is about maturity and how certain people seek value from interpersonal relationships and approval from peers and the competitive nature that gaming group members bond over,” Brooks told CNN.

Classified or sensitive documents are also a unique problem for content moderators on social media sites.

“With porn, you can at least have some kind of AI that will give a rough flag at the beginning that this looks vaguely like porn,” said Golbeck, the University of Maryland professor. “But what looks like a classified document? They’re just documents.”

As social media platforms like Discord grapple with the challenges of detecting sensitive intelligence leaks online, current and former US officials worry that US adversaries like Russia may see an intelligence gathering opportunity.

“If it’s not already happening, my guess would be the Russians have assessed that digging around in some of these obscure online forums … could bear fruit,” Holden Triplett, a former FBI official who worked at the US embassy in Moscow, told CNN.

Though there is no evidence that Teixeira was approached by foreign agents, Triplett said a young generation of online gamers might be a ripe target for recruitment.

“Ego and excitement have always been strong motivations to spy,” said Triplett, who is founder of security consultancy Trenchcoat Advisors. But the group of Discord users that included Teixeira “seemed particularly indifferent to national security concerns,” which is a vulnerability for the US government, Triplett said.

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