Officials from the FBI and Navy are investigating the role a pro-Russia social media account had in spreading photos of classified US documents online – and have contacted a former Navy noncommissioned officer who was affiliated with the account, multiple people familiar with the matter told CNN.
The investigation arose after a Telegram account called Donbass Devushka, which has more than 70,000 subscribers and describes itself as “Russian-style information warfare,” on April 5 reposted photos on Telegram of apparently classified US intelligence related to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Sarah Bils, the former Navy officer, confirmed to CNN on Monday that she was one of multiple administrators of the Donbass Devushka Telegram account, but said she did not re-post the classified information and had no connection to the leaks. Someone else administering the Telegram account re-posted the photos, according to Bils, who said she later “personally deleted” the post.
Bils told The Wall Street Journal that she is one of 15 people “all over the world” involved in running the Donbass Devushka social media accounts.
Neither the details nor the extent of the investigation were clear. When CNN asked the Naval Criminal Investigative Service whether it’s investigating Bils, NCIS spokesperson Jeff Houston said: “I confirm that NCIS is continuing to work jointly with the Department of Justice on this investigation,” and referred CNN to the Department of Justice.
The FBI and the Justice Department declined to comment.
The FBI spoke with Bils and, she told CNN in an email, the bureau knows “I had nothing to do with those leaks.” The bureau is also involved, she added, because “there have been various threats against myself and my home.”
The photos of classified documents reposted by the Donbass Devushka Telegram account were first shared months ago in a private chatroom on another social media site, Discord. US prosecutors allege that 21-year-old Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira posted the classified documents to Discord before the photos made their way across the internet.
There is no indication that anyone affiliated with the Donbass Devushka accounts knew Teixeira, who was arrested last week and charged under the Espionage Act. But Bils’ involvement in spreading pro-Russian propaganda raises more uncomfortable questions for the Pentagon on the role that current or former US military personnel have in potentially shaping public opinion related to the war in Ukraine.
The Wall Street Journal and pro-Ukraine activists and online analysts known as NAFO first reported on Bils’ affiliation with Donbass Devushka.
Bils, who worked on a US Naval air station until November, according to Navy records, told CNN that she and others ran the Donbass Devushka online persona, which translates to Donbas Girl.
“The Donbass Devushka Telegram, Twitter, YouTube, and Spotify accounts more-or-less function as disinformation aggregators and amplifiers,” said Joe Bodnar, research analyst at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy.
“Donbass Devushka’s success has even been noticed by Russian diplomats and overt propagandists, who have retweeted the account dozens of times this year,” Bodnar told CNN.
CNN’s Evan Perez and Haley Britzky contributed to this report.