Ex-Navy Aviation Techie Behind Pro-Russian Media Network That Helped Expose Classified Documents Leak
- A former U.S. Navy NCO is behind a Pro-Russian news and support network that reposted classified documents on social media, leading to the discovery of the leak, according to the WSJ.
- The operator of the Donbass Devushka Telegram account, Sarah Bils, served at Whidbey Island in Washington and was discharged in November 2022.
- Researcher and university professor Pekka Kallioniemi believes she assumed a “fake Russian identity” and occasionally mimicked a Russian accent.
A former Navy non-commissioned officer based in New Jersey played a key role in bringing a months-long leak of classified Pentagon intelligence to light after her social media account shared doctored images of one of the documents, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Sarah Bils, operating under the pseudonym Donbass Devushka (“Donbas Girl”) reposted a number of classified documents the FBI traced back to Massachusetts National Guard Airman Jack Teixeira, according to the WSJ. Although Bils alleged to hail from Russia, hosting podcasts with known pro-Kremlin figures and coordinating media, podcasting, merchandise and fundraising accounts for multiple accounts, Bils in reality is a former U.S. Navy enlisted aviation electronics technician who served on Whidbey Island, Washington when the leaks began.
Bils’ accounts on social media platforms like Telegram, Twitter and YouTube are some of the most notable Pro-Russian accounts, with tens of thousands of followers, according to the WSJ.
On April 5, Donbass Devushka posted four leaked documents, according to screenshots seen by the WSJ. Other Russian social media accounts noticed and shared the documents, amplifying them for researchers and media outlets for further reporting. The Pentagon launched an investigation around that time, according to the WSJ.
“Some very interesting potential intel,” the account noted.
The account later denied editing the document that appeared to show massive Ukrainian casualties and relatively low losses on the Russian side. “We would never edit content for our viewers,” another post said, according to the WSJ.
Bils said she later deleted the documents and disciplined the administrator who posted them in a statement on Telegram.
“I don’t even know the authenticity of the documents or what they say. I am not very well versed in reading documents like that,” she told the WSJ.
Researcher and university professor Pekka Kallioniemi first outed Donbass Deuvshka in a Twitter thread on April 14, alleging that she assumed a “fake Russian identity” and occasionally mimicked a Russian accent. She claimed to be from Luhansk, one territory in the Donbas.
Bils told the WSJ she served as administrator of the Donbass Devushka persona and confirmed the WSJ’s findings that she helped orchestrate fundraising and information sharing. However, she said she was only one of about 15 people worldwide who contributed to the network.
She denied sharing the four original files, according to the WSJ.
“Obviously know the gravity of top-secret classified materials. We didn’t leak them,” she told the outlet.
So far, there’s no reason to believe she unlawfully accessed and transmitted classified intelligence while operating the social media channels before she was discharged from the Navy in November 2022 under honorable conditions, according to the WSJ. A former Navy colleague told the outlet her rank of E-7 and position means Bils would likely have held a top-secret security clearance.
The Pentagon referred the WSJ to Bils and the Department of Justice, which is still conducting an investigation into the leaks and working to prosecute Teixeira, who heard his charges Friday.
Several dozen classified documents, up to one hundred, circulated on isolated Discord servers among warfighting and gaming enthusiasts before Donbass Devushka picked up on them.
Donbass Devushka’s Telegram account describes itself as conducting “Russian–style information warfare.” Other accounts overseen by the Donbass Devushka persona promoted merchandise for sale glorifying the Wagner private military company and the Russian military, pledging to donate proceeds toward promoting “freedom of Donbass” and to help “our men on the front.”
The Donbas separatist regions of eastern Ukraine currently see some of the heaviest fighting of the war after Russia launched a full-scale invasion in February 2022, according to the WSJ.
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