Paul Cobaugh, a 66-year-old former U.S. Army information warfare expert, has spent much of his retirement years writing books about political warfare and posting articles by others that he likes on LinkedIn.
This week the FBI took notice of one of those articles Cobaugh posted back in April. Agents from the bureau’s office in San Antonio, where Cobaugh lives, visited the veteran at his home on Wednesday and asked him to delete an article he had posted last April about the so-called Discord leaks, the massive trove of highly classified documents that a low level Air Force National Guard enlisted man has been charged with stealing and posting on social media.
The article in question, “On That DoD Intelligence Leak Shocker,” was written by me and published here at SpyTalk on April 10. Like other news organizations writing about the leaks over the following weeks and months, the article included a photographic sample of one of the scores of classified documents allegedly stolen and circulated widely by Airman 1st class Jack Teixeira.
When the FBI agents visited Cobaugh on Aug. 9 he was working with a headset on in his home office—he’s vice president of Narrative Strategies, a U.S.based think tank and consultancy specializing in “the non-kinetic aspects of conflict”—and his wife was in the back yard, so they didn’t hear the doorbell. Not getting a response, one of the agents left his card in the front door with a message scribbled on the back asking Cobaugh to call him.
He did, and the agents returned. The lead agent (whom SpyTalk is not naming now at the FBI’s request) asked Cobaugh if he had a LinkedIn account. “They said they believed that I may have posted something that had a classified marking on it,” Cobaugh told me. The agent asked Cobaugh to “take it down.”
He says he willingly complied.
“I gave him my phone and said, ‘Here, you find it—you know better how to look for it than me.’ So I gave him my phone. I don’t have anything to hide.”
The FBI agent also asked Cobaugh if he could examine his phone for replicas of other classified documents. Again, Cobaugh, who held high level security clearances throughout his Army career and later as a contractor, quickly complied.
After the agents left, he called us.
SpyTalk reached out to the agent, who readily confirmed the visit and Cobaugh’s account.
“That was what it was about—taking it off the Internet,” he said.
I asked him whether the FBI was reaching out to everyone who had re-posted photos of the Discord leaks and asking them to take them down.
“That’s correct,” he said. It was a project of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program.
Pressed further on the project, the agent declined to answer and said he was “going to have someone come around and talk to you.” We have heard nothing further from him.
The FBI’s public affairs office in Washington declined to comment on the incident, or on anything regarding Bureau policy on stemming republication of the Discord leaks.
Cobaugh said the FBI agents’ visit “scared the hell out of my wife and still does.”
“I believe it was a message of sorts.”
But he said he remains unbowed about his right to publish anything in the public domain.
“Me, I’m too damn old and stubborn to quit the fight for truth and integrity,” he said.
“I actually mentioned to them that their visit…was taking them away from truly important investigations,” he added. San Antonio, with its many military and intelligence-oriented installations, can be considered a prime target of Russian, Chinese and other adversary espionage services.
The FBI’s approach to Cobaugh was not unusual, Frank Figliuzzi, a former FBI counterintelligence chief, told SpyTalk.
“As for the FBI trying to contain further publication, even though the docs may be out there, it’s not uncommon” to investigate the continuing publication of classified documents, Figliuzzi said. ”This is particularly true when there is a pending prosecution.”
Airman Teixeira, detained since his April arrest at his home in North Dighton, Massachusetts, “is unlikely to stand trial for several months because of the government’s time-consuming and “laborious” consultation with all the federal agencies whose classified documents surfaced in the Discord leaks, “each of which must be consulted before authorities can hand over the material to Teixeira’s attorneys,” The Washington Post reported July 24.
In a quirky rule going back decades, all federal employees are forbidden to download or even read classified documents, even though they have been widely published. Such has been the case since at least 2010, upon publication of the so-called Wikileaks diplomatic cables. State Department employees were instructed “not to access the WikiLeaks site and download posted documents using an unclassified network, since these documents are still classified,” then-spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Huffington Post.
In the wake of the Wikileaks exposure, the Office of Budget and Management sent out a memo instructing federal agencies to tighten security procedures. It included “the rather Orwellian suggestion,” the Christian Science Monitor, reported, that “federal employees and contractors who believe they may have inadvertently accessed or downloaded classified or sensitive information on computers that access the web via non-classified government systems, or without prior authorization, should contact their information security offices for assistance.”
In 2011 the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the State Department asking for the release of 23 classified cables released by Wikileaks. The department ignored the request so the ACLU sued, arguing that they’d already been published by major newspapers around the world, not to mention foreign adversary web sites. The lawsuit caused the State Department to release portions of the diplomatic cables.
Still, “even former government employees who had clearances have an obligation” not to access or retain classified records, notes former FBI Special Agent Mike German, a longtime authority on government surveillance and privacy issues.
“So I’m not surprised they went to somebody who was a veteran, not just because he was likely to comply, but because they arguably had an ax that they [could hold] over his head,” German said of the FBI’s visit to Cobaugh, who retired from the Joint Information Operations Warfare Center in San Antonio in 2018. The Defense Department occasionally contracted him as a “utility player” for the next three years, he said.
German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program at New York University Law School, said he remembered that after the 2013 Edward Snowden leaks, “a lot of students” were fearful that writing about the documents “might impede their ability to get a security clearance later” with the FBI, CIA or other sensitive agencies.
The FBI would not comment on the scope of its efforts to warn former federal employees against posting articles that include samples of the Discord leaks, or whether, in Cobaugh’s case, it was undertaken by one agent’s initiative or part of a Bureau-wide policy. Questions also lingered over whether Cobaugh had been singled out and why.
German said he could imagine that “some busybody in the community noticed” Cobaugh’s posting of the SpyTalk article on LinkedIn “and recognized the ongoing obligation this veteran had to protect classified information and wanted to make a big deal of it and sent a report to the FBI. That’s the kind of thing they feel they have to have to respond to.” On the other hand, he added, “the FBI does have broad social media data mining programs, so it may have been a referral from that system as well.”
In April, Washington Post reported that the FBI “is responsible for collecting evidence of Teixeira’s alleged crime. But it is also seeking to assess the damage from the ‘spillage’ of classified information.”
It hardly needs saying that the FBI’s challenge in chasing down replication of the leaked documents, which swirled around the Internet for weeks before they were discovered, is immense.
Back in April, the Biden administration was “considering an expansion of its surveillance of social media sites and chat rooms in the aftermath of the leak,” NBC reported.
The reported initiative immediately prompted Constitutional privacy questions. Some critics said the FBI should be made to get warrants for such intrusions.
One, James Lewis, a former senior intelligence official and fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told ABC News, “Here’s an easy rule of thumb: Can you get it in a Google search? If the answer is ‘yes,’ it’s public; if you can’t, it’s private. Then you go down the route of a warrant.”
Cobaugh called the incident “bizarre”—and enraging. But he’s not intimidated into silence.
“I have vowed to continue posting what is true, accurate and legal,” he said. “I am guilty of nothing and refuse to bend to any implied intimidation or scare tactic.” ###
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