Feds See the Document Leak as an Opportunity for Surveillance and Control
Never underestimate officials’ ability to turn embarrassing moments into awful opportunities.
Another day, another government blunder used as an excuse to tighten the screws on the public in hopes of reducing the fallout from official incompetence. That's a fair takeaway from efforts by the Biden administration and security agencies to lean on the media for reporting the contents of the recent intelligence leaks, and to plan expanded internet surveillance to catch inevitable future leakers.
The Rattler is a weekly newsletter from J.D. Tuccille. If you care about government overreach and tangible threats to everyday liberty, this is for you.
Stop Looking at Me!
"We do believe that social media companies have a responsibility to their users and to the country to manage the private sector infrastructure that they create and now operate," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre responded last week to questions about a massive leak of military documents detailing everything from Pentagon assessments of Ukraine's prospects in its war with Russia to apparent U.S. spying on its allies. "We normally urge companies to avoid facilitating those circulation of material detrimental to public safety and national security."
Strictly speaking, it's the job of governments to keep their own secrets. Private individuals and organizations have no responsibility to look away from information revealed to the world by random Air National Guard I.T. workers entrusted with sensitive intelligence. But when you're a government flack trying to explain away the latest in a series of screw-ups, it must be tempting to wag your finger at a world that so stubbornly refuses to ignore your bouts of institutional Tourette syndrome. Of course, the surveillance state has some clever ideas for fixing the problem.
"The Biden administration is looking at expanding how it monitors social media sites and chatrooms after U.S. intelligence agencies failed to spot classified Pentagon documents circulating online for weeks, according to a senior administration official and a congressional official briefed on the matter," NBC News's Carol E. Lee, Ken Dilanian, and Dan De Luce report.
Clearly, at least to state functionaries, extensive scrutiny of other people is the best way to address the inadequacy of your own internal security precautions.
Actually, the Biden administration might want to call a meeting to get its story straight. Even as the White House press secretary leans on private media to scrub the leaked documents from the internet and the intelligence community vows to leave no gaming chatroom unsurveilled, President Biden insists he's "not concerned about the leak because…there's nothing contemporaneous that I'm aware of that is of great consequence right now."
So, if the leak is no biggy, why demand that private companies ignore it and plan for a super-sized surveillance state? The obvious answer, as media operations around the planet parse the documents for items of interest, is that federal bureaucrats are really embarrassed. And rather than attempt to patch the flaws in a government behemoth that is resistant to repair if not entirely beyond hope, they'd rather demand that the rest of the planet avert its eyes from the trainwreck, as if that will fix everything.
"Yeah, you can totally delete things from the Internet – that works perfectly and doesn't draw attention to whatever you were trying to hide at all," Elon Musk snarked back at demands that Twitter remove sensitive information long after it began circulating.
Official desperation is apparent in an April 12 story in The Washington Post that "for years, U.S. counterintelligence officials have eyed gaming platforms as a magnet for spies" after the release of the documents on Discord, which hosts topic-based channels and is popular with gamers among others. (I can only assume the baking forums my wife frequents are havens for assassins—like John Wick, but fudgier.)
But seriously, "gaming platforms as a magnet for spies" makes sense only to the extent that intelligence agents might try to cultivate sources by playing to their interests, such as gaming or sex (or baking). It's a silly point to make if reports are to be believed that Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira pilfered the documents not to benefit Russia's efforts in Ukraine, or as an act of whistleblowing on government wrongdoing, but instead to impress his buddies. Much to the chagrin of officials anonymously suggesting (in approved leaks) that "Russia or pro-Russian elements" were behind the leak, the current rounds of international headlines points to internal security flaws, not to Boris and Natasha.
How Much Cooperation Is Enough?
Besides, it's not obvious that the government needs a whole lot more private-sector cooperation with its counterintelligence efforts. In addition to the open-source intelligence organization Bellingcat, Teixeira was outed by The New York Times. "Reporters from The New York Times were already gathered near the Dighton home of Airman First Class Jack Teixeira's mother when a half-dozen FBI agents, some of them heavily armed, pushed their way inside," according to the Boston Globe's Shannon Larson.
Maybe all of those former CIA and FBI officials taking gigs at media operations in recent years are onto something, if by "something" we mean a new way of doing their old jobs.
"The downside of outsourcing national security coverage to the TV spies is obvious," Politico media critic Jack Shafer warned in 2018. "They aren't in the business of breaking news or uncovering secrets. Their first loyalty—and this is no slam—is to the agency from which they hail."
Now media operations more effectively engage in counterintelligence than the government agencies tasked with that duty! But that's still not enough for federal officials who don't have a handle on their own procedures for managing sensitive data and see an opportunity to extend their reach to cover what others discuss and publish.
"The administration is now looking at expanding the universe of online sites that intelligence agencies and law enforcement authorities track," NBC News added in its report about official reactions to the leak. "The intelligence community is now grappling with how it can scrub platforms like Discord in search of relevant material to avoid a similar leak in the future."
Panic On Top of Panic
The NBC story includes some caveats about civil liberties and the limits of surveillance authority. But it comes in the midst of a national frenzy over espionage via popular communications platforms such as TikTok. That fuels legislative proposals, including the RESTRICT Act, to vastly expand government authority over the online world.
"The RESTRICT Act isn't narrowly tailored at all. In fact, it's so broad it's difficult to see where its authoritarian powers end," I warned before the current leak hit the news. "Open-ended bills crafted to exploit popular panics make for terrible legislation."
Concerns over secrets posted in chatrooms and shared across social media can only feed into official efforts to shift blame for government failings and to expand state power.
Jack Teixeira may have only been trying to impress a group of online friends, but he also managed to leave the military and intelligence communities looking foolish. Never underestimate government officials' ability to turn embarrassing moments for them into opportunities to stick it to the rest of us.