The leaked intelligence documents that led to the arrest of a Massachusetts National Air Guardsman Thursday were online for months — wending their way through the Internet’s backwaters — before bursting into public view this month.
Starting last year, the documents passed through a private chat application, an encrypted messaging service, and an anonymous digital bulletin board before reaching Twitter and coming to the attention of US officials and the media, according to reports by the New York Times and the Washington Post.
These online platforms — including Discord, Telegram, and 4Chan — are used by millions for mundane and innocent purposes. But they have also become popular redoubts for groups seeking to keep their activities shielded from public view, including white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and terrorists.
US counter-intelligence officials have previously scrutinized online messaging platforms, especially those used by video gamers, on the suspicion that foreign intelligence agencies might use them to recruit Americans with security clearances to leak sensitive data, according to a Washington Post report.
The leaked documents that came to light this month first appeared in a private group on Discord, a communication platform commonly used by video gamers and fans of popular YouTube accounts. According to a Washington Post report, one member of the group started posting transcripts of the intelligence documents to the group last year and later posted photos of the documents.
For months, the transcripts and photos were visible only to the approximately two dozen members of the Discord group.
“They were just sitting there,” a member of the group said in a video interview published by the Post.
The group members — mostly teenage boys and young men — included Russian and Ukrainian citizens, according to the Post.
Within the Discord group, called Thug Shaker Central, the member who posted the documents was known as “the O.G.,” an abbreviation for “original gangster.”
“He was the leader,” a member of the group said in a video interview published by the Post.
The member declined to identify “the O.G.” in the interview but described him as a soldier who worked on a military base. On Thursday, FBI agents arrested Jack Teixeira, 21, a Massachusetts Air National Guardsman who reportedly worked at Joint Base Cape Cod.
The member who spoke to the Post said it was understood that the documents were not meant to be shared outside the Thug Shaker Central group.
But beginning on February 28, a teenage member of the group posted dozens of the photographed documents in another Discord group.
By April 5, the documents had spread much further, according to the Post and the Times. They appeared on 4Chan, the anonymous bulletin board. They showed up on Russian-language channels on Telegram, an encrypted messaging service. They also surfaced on Twitter, where millions could see them.
On April 6, the O.G. messaged the members of Thug Shaker Central in a “frantic” state, the group member told the Post.
“He said something had happened, and he prayed to God that this event would not happen,” the member said. “But now it’s in God’s hands.”
Mike Damiano can be reached at email@example.com.