The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Where did leaked U.S. secrets appear? On a chat app popular with gamers.

A Discord display at the Game Developers Conference 2023 in San Francisco on March 22. (Jeff Chiu/AP)
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As the U.S. government hunts the source of an online leak of classified military documents, public attention has turned to a chat app popular among gamers, including a forum for a YouTuber named wow_mao.

The documents, which were shared on the Discord app last month and spread to other corners of the internet, appear to detail Ukrainian and Russian military capabilities and offer a look at American intelligence gathering on other countries, The Washington Post has reported.

In the overlap between internet meme culture and U.S. military secrets, some have traced the spread of the documents to Discord servers, which are similar to chatrooms, with names including Minecraft Earth Map, the End of Wow Mao Zone and Thug Shaker Central.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vowed Tuesday to “turn over every rock until we find the source of this” and said he was informed of the leak in early April. Yet, photographs of pages of documents, which seemed printed and folded together, appeared to have sprung up weeks earlier on Discord, and several were then posted on Telegram and Twitter, The Post reported.

It remains unclear who was behind the leak, which was first reported by the New York Times, or exactly how it was accomplished.

The key countries and revelations from the Pentagon document leak

The documents were shared by a user to the Discord server of a YouTuber who goes by “wow_mao,” and whose YouTube channel has nearly 250,000 subscribers. A moderator shared more than 30 leaked documents in March, wow_mao said in a video posted after the uproar this week.

He said his understanding was that the moderator had found the documents on another Discord server. “We’re definitely not at the center of this leak, but my server was how a lot of people saw this document for the first time,” wow_mao added.

Discord, which was launched in 2015, has drawn broader communities and grown into a more mainstream platform after gaining popularity among young users and gamers. The text and voice chat app works on desktops, phones and Xbox gaming consoles.

Its servers can have multiple channels, where users talk to each other, send announcements or share links. Many servers are private and invitation-only, while others are public and dedicated to an array of topics including niche hobbies and influencers.

Like other communications and messaging apps, Discord thrived during the coronavirus pandemic. And like other chat services, Discord has faced questions over racist messages linked to violence, including the shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo last year. The company has said it investigates and takes action in response to illegal activity or policy violations.

Fans wanted a war game to be more real, so they leaked classified docs

Forums popular with gamers and classified documents have overlapped in the past. Players of the video game “War Thunder” posted classified documents in a forum dedicated to the game, The Post reported last year.

Still, the latest disclosures alarmed U.S. officials and raised questions about how the leak went unnoticed by officials for as long as it did. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. government spoke with its allies “to reassure them about our own commitment to safeguarding intelligence.”

In his video, wow_mao commented on the idea of U.S. intelligence agencies watching his meme videos in their pursuit of the source of the leak. The attention has led to people including journalists “having to explain what I am to the general public,” he added, describing himself as an “internet micro-celebrity.”

“And I’d like to keep it that way,” he said.

Shannon Liao, Tatum Hunter and Chris Velazco contributed to this report.

The Discord Leaks

In exclusive interviews with a member of the Discord group where U.S. intelligence documents were shared, The Washington Post learned details of the alleged leaker, “OG.” The Post also obtained a number of previously unreported documents from a trove of images of classified files posted on a private server on the chat app Discord.

How the leak happened: The Washington Post reported that the individual who leaked the information shared documents with a small circle of online friends on the Discord chat platform. This is a timeline of how the documents leaked.

The suspected document leaker: Jack Teixeira, a young member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, was charged in the investigation into leaks of hundreds of pages of classified military intelligence. Teixeira told members of the online group that he worked as a technology support staffer at a base on Cape Cod, one member of the Discord server told The Post. Here’s what we learned about the alleged document leaker.

What we learned from the leaked documents: The massive document leak has exposed a range of U.S. government secrets, including spying on allies, the grim prospects for Ukraine’s war with Russia and the precariousness of Taiwan’s air defenses. It also has ignited diplomatic fires for the White House. Here’s what we’ve learned from the documents.