On April 13, the FBI arrested Jack Teixeira for his alleged involvement in leaking hundreds of classified documents. Teixeira, a member of the Air National Guard, reportedly shared the US intelligence assessments with his friends over the course of several months, but most of the world discovered the leaks only a week before his arrest. During those seven days, as document after document surfaced to show US thinking on geopolitical and military hotspots, some Western officials suggested that the Russian government could be behind the security breach. However, at the same time, Russian propagandists were struggling to make sense of the revelations. Kremlin-linked messengers couldn’t decide if the leaks were real, fake, important, or useless. Russian outlets ran pieces detailing leaks that could embarrass the United States alongside articles calling those same leaks disinformation. Some said the documents were “much ado about nothing” while others amplified warnings that a world war was imminent. The Kremlin’s propagandists appeared to be caught flatfooted by the leaks and were unable to create a common narrative around the fast-moving story. Ultimately, Russia’s messaging on the leaks was more confusing and contradictory than it was convincing.
The New York Times broke the news of the leaks on April 6. The next day, Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief, asserted that “if the NYT is reporting a leak of classified Pentagon documents, then there was no leaks”. Many top Russian officials maintained that view. While the Kremlin spokesperson largely dismissed the leaks, people like Russia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, the founder of the Wagner Group, and the pro-Russia leader in Donetsk asserted that the revelations were part of a disinformation campaign. Some state media claimed that details in the documents didn’t “add up” and “reek[ed] of disinfo”. RT Arabic polled its Twitter followers to see if they thought the leaks were real or disinformation. Sixty-seven percent of respondents said the documents were a “military security trap”.
Meanwhile, Kremlin-funded outlets were also amplifying Western press reports that claimed the leaks could undermine the United States, Ukraine, and NATO. Sputnik Mundo and RT en Español quoted Washington Post articles that showed “panic in the Pentagon” and US doubts about Ukraine’s coming counteroffensive. RT and others highlighted that the United States was spying on officials in Ukraine, South Korea, and the United Nations. State-backed media played up news that around 100 NATO special operations officials were in Ukraine. Propagandists used these revelations to argue that Ukraine was bound to lose the war, that the United States was directing NATO’s war against Russia, and that Washington was out of step with its allies. Oddly, while some state media said that these leaks were a “nightmare” for the West and a boon for Russia, others insisted that the documents would not affect current events.
As Russian messengers simultaneously tried to discredit and weaponize the leaks, they also speculated about the identity and motivation of the leaker. Much of that commentary claimed that the leaks were the work of a whistleblower who was opposed to the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine. Sputnik asked if the leaks proved that the Pentagon had turned on President Biden, and Sputnik Serbia said it was a “US conspiracy against America”. State-backed outlets also suggested the leaks were carried out by a single “Snowden-like dissenter”. In the end, independent reporting showed that Jack Teixeira, the alleged leaker, was not a whistleblower. He was trying to impress a handful of teenagers that he played video games with.
After Teixeira’s arrest, Russian state media alternatively defended him and claimed that he was part of the broader US disinformation campaign. RT host Manila Chan tweeted, “poor boy” and noted his work showed “how much our gov[ernment] lies”. Other state-backed accounts amplified Fox host Tucker Carlson and Representative Marjorie Taylor Green’s defense of Teixeira. Sputnik argued that his arrest was a “danger to freedom of expression” and was a pretext to increase government surveillance. Meanwhile, Sputnik host George Galloway retweeted a post that said, “No matter what anybody believes or claims, he [Teixeira] is not the one who hacked the Pentagon”. NewsFront wrote that Teixeira was too calm when being arrested in one article and in another asserted that the Biden administration had set him up to leak the documents in order to purge dissidents from the administration.
Why It Matters
Teixeira’s leaks mark one of the most significant security breaches of the century. The roughly 300 documents that he shared contained recent US intelligence assessments on the war in Ukraine, evidence of tension between NATO members, and examples of the United States spying on allies and international organizations. They also showed details about the FSB’s feud with Russia’s Defense Ministry and Moscow’s plan for disinformation campaigns in Europe and Africa. The leaks’ uncertain provenance along with the fact that they cast both the United States and Russia in a bad light seemed to leave the Kremlin confused about how best to frame the revelations. Propagandists tried to discredit the documents while at the same time using them to criticize the West. Some argued that the leaks were significant while others downplayed their relevance. Some defended the leaker while others asserted that his arrest was part of a ploy to mislead Russia. The Kremlin has a track record of gaining access to sensitive information and successfully weaponizing that material in disinformation campaigns. But Russia proved less able to control narratives around leaks that it didn’t facilitate.
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