U.S. Intel Agencies May Change How They Monitor Social Media, Chatrooms After Missing Leaked U.S. Documents for Weeks
Carol E. Lee et al., NBC News, April 12, 2023
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.
The possible change in the intelligence-gathering process is just one potential shift as officials scramble to determine not only how the documents leaked but also how to prevent another damaging incident.
President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were briefed about the disclosure last week, administration officials say, but the secret documents appeared online in early March on the Discord social media app, according to Bellingcat, the open-source investigative group. Some documents may have appeared as early as January, the group said.
The president and other officials were dismayed when they learned the documents had been online for at least a month.
“Nobody is happy about this,” said the senior administration official.
The administration is now looking at expanding the universe of online sites that intelligence agencies and law enforcement authorities track, the official said.
The secret Pentagon documents appeared in an obscure part of the internet focused on gaming, and some former intelligence officials said it was understandable that U.S. authorities did not spot the disclosure.
The U.S. government may not have been looking there, but cybersecurity experts have long known that Discord has been used by criminals and hackers to spread malware and stealthily transfer stolen information.
In the aftermath of the leak, the administration has already tightened access to classified information and is looking at other steps, officials said.
The leaked documents appear to contain “sensitive and highly classified material” and pose a potentially serious risk to national security, the Pentagon said on Monday. NBC News obtained more than 50 of the documents, which appear to be briefing slides for the U.S. military’s Joint Staff based on information from a range of U.S. intelligence agencies.
The documents include detailed intelligence on Russian tactical moves in the war in Ukraine, descriptions of Ukraine’s combat power and weaknesses, alleged sabotage by Ukrainian agents inside Belarus and Russia, and spying reports on allies, including South Korea and Israel. Much of the intelligence reporting in the documents signals intelligence — or electronic eavesdropping — as the source of the information, a crucial tool for America’s spy services.
If the administration tries to check online chatrooms more closely, it will have to navigate legal safeguards designed to protect Americans’ privacy and freedom of expression, former intelligence officials said.
Watching a public chatroom is fair game, but law enforcement agencies don’t have the legal authority to monitor a private online chatroom without probable cause, the former officials said.
“We do not have nor do we want a system where the United States government monitors private internet chats,” said Glenn Gerstell, former general counsel of the National Security Agency from 2015 to 2020.
U.S. laws prohibit searching private chatrooms preemptively and “scanning for classified documents” that may or may not be there, Gerstell said.
However, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have come under criticism for how they responded to alarming posts on social media in the run-up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by former President Trump supporters.
The House Jan. 6 committee concluded the FBI and DHS were too cautious about acting on information gleaned from social media out of misplaced concern over potential free speech violations, NBC News previously reported.