As a flood of secrets spills out onto the internet, and officials in Washington scramble to contain the damage and plug the leaks with FBI counterintelligence investigations and Justice Department referrals, it’s clear the United States has suffered what appears to be a catastrophic national security failure. While the damage is difficult to immediately quantify, it is extensive and ongoing, with grave implications for American and allied interests from Ukraine to Asia to the Middle East.
Indeed, anxious American officials are calling the leaks a “nightmare for the Five Eyes,” referring to the intelligence-sharing alliance between the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
Ominously, the origin of the leaks remains a mystery. The U.S. has begun tightening access and restricting the flow of information within the government, as it searches for the culprit behind the leaks. Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh announced that the Department of Defense (DOD) stood up an “interagency effort” to assess the damage to “U.S. national security and on our Allies and partners.”
The source or sources of the leaks remains unknown and unidentified, hidden somewhere within the upper echelons of America’s vast military and national security apparatus, an anonymous mole with a security clearance, access to state secrets, and a desire to inflict pain on the United States and its partners. The source could be a disgruntled insider betraying U.S. secrets for the pleasure of revenge, or a trained Russian asset, a penetration agent operating in the heart of the American government.
Until he or she is arrested, we can only speculate about the motives and identity of this individual. As top secret information keeps trickling out of the U.S. government, the blowback will continue reverberating around the world, with unpredictable consequences.
Indeed, further embarrassing exposures are distinctly possible, and dangerous.
Ultimately, this information could enable hostile foreign intelligence agencies to unmask American spies working within foreign governments, cripple specific channels providing the U.S. with signals intelligence, poison relationships between the U.S. and its allies, and derail sensitive operations around the world by revealing American sources and methods.
A storm of secrets
A torrent of highly classified documents from internal Pentagon briefings, folded into small squares and quickly photographed, have been spreading like wildfire on the gaming platform Discord, the encrypted social media app Telegram, the message board 4Chan, and Twitter. Federal investigators are now trying to hone in on what amounts to a trail of digital breadcrumbs, no simple task.
Nevertheless, the Russians are likely ecstatic, overjoyed about receiving this precious gift from the inner sanctum of the “main enemy.”
The dates of sensitive documents assessing various aspects of the war in Ukraine are from late February to early March, and thus extremely timely and relevant from the perspective of Russian war planners preparing for Ukraine’s expected counteroffensive.
It’s going to be impossible to suppress or otherwise rid the internet of these revelations, now that they’ve circulated this widely, and with this much media attention. The secrets in the 100 or so photographed documents are now blown wide open, irrevocably exposed to the world.
Meanwhile, there’s nothing to suggest that we’ve seen the end of these leaks, particularly with no suspected perpetrator in handcuffs. It’s a problem with real urgency, and no solution as of yet.
Friends & enemies
The documents confirm America’s widening involvement in the war in Ukraine, and U.S. intelligence’s widespread infiltration of Russia’s General Staff and GRU (military intelligence). But the documents also reveal America’s unsavory but somewhat predictable habit of spying on its friends and partners, nothing new in high-stakes international relations.
Apparently, the United States has been listening in on conversations among allied officials and politicians in Seoul, Kyiv, Jerusalem, and elsewhere. The documents contained details derived from signals intelligence capturing South Korean officials worrying that their deliveries of 155 mm artillery shells to the U.S. were actually destined for Ukraine, despite Seoul’s policy of not arming nations at war. The documents show that they were correct that the ultimate destination of the shells was Ukraine.
There was also delicate information about America’s closest Middle Eastern ally. The documents showed that the Mossad chief was urging employees at Israel’s storied foreign intelligence agency to join protests against Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reforms, as the country erupted into mass protests that ultimately forced him to delay the move. The Israeli government vehemently denied this.
There were also reports about discussions among top officials serving in Volodymyr Zelensky’s government in Kyiv, and stark U.S. predictions of a “stalemate” in the Donbas, and what they believe are the slim prospects for success concerning Ukraine’s upcoming offensive.
It’s all a bit reminiscent of when the Obama administration was caught tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls, which emerged during Edward Snowden’s release of a massive trove of NSA files in 2013. It was a serious embarrassment at the time, though it did no lasting damage to relations between Germany and the United States.
Inevitably, these new leaks are being compared to Snowden’s. Notably, the former NSA contractor lives in Russia, having sworn an oath of allegiance to Putin’s brutal authoritarian regime after the invasion of Ukraine. He gained Russian citizenship for himself, and shelter from the U.S. government, but lost any and all credibility as a whistleblower concerned with protecting democracy.
As David Sanger noted in his article in the New York Times today, the difference between this ongoing intelligence debacle, and Snowden’s and Wikileaks, is that these secrets are nearly current, and thus highly relevant to events on the ground in an active war.
Many of the dozens of documents are about America’s deepening involvement in Ukraine; they reveal America’s grim assessments of both the Ukrainian and Russian militaries, and offer potentially compromising information about the weapons, logistics, and battlefield planning of the Ukrainian military.
Still, the U.S. is doing nearly everything in its power to support Kyiv.
The documents make it clear that while America isn’t engaged directly in shooting at Russian troops, the U.S. is “heavily entangled in almost everything else,” as Sanger puts it. The U.S. is supplying the weapons, ammunition, logistical expertise, and precise targeting intelligence that’s allowing the government in Kyiv to effectively defend itself against Vladimir Putin’s genocidal aggression.
Unfortunately, these leaks are likely to complicate that daunting task, as Ukraine fights an existential battle to fend off what has been a savage Russian invasion and occupation, one that has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and shows no signs of slowing down or concluding.
The documents, drawn from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Operations Center, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the Joint Staff’s intelligence arm, known as J2, provides an extraordinary look into some of America’s most sensitive deliberations, planning, and operations.
The precise systems, munitions, and capabilities of Ukraine’s overstretched air defenses, complete with maps showing their exact locations, are part of the cache of documents. There’s concern that Ukraine’s stressed air defenses may soon collapse, enabling Russian warplanes to gain air superiority, something that could fundamentally change the course of the entire war.
That’s information the Kremlin can be expected to exploit, going forward.
In another revealing example, documents analyzing troop strength and casualties in the Ukrainian and Russian armies seem to have been doctored to exaggerate Ukraine’s losses and minimize Russia’s staggering number of casualties (estimated at more than 200,000). It’s precisely what you would expect from the Kremlin’s accomplished spin doctors, as Moscow manipulates unfavorable information into something the Kremlin considers more helpful.
However, alongside these numerical fabrications appears plentiful evidence of American penetration of the Russian military’s General Staff and officer corps, and its military intelligence agencies. U.S. intelligence agencies have compromised Russia’s military to such an extent that Washington knows beforehand what and where Russia intends to strike, giving it a crystal clear picture of its strategic, tactical, and operational plans, and giving Ukraine the information it needs to defend itself.
Indeed, it’s often been noted that Washington has a much better idea about Russian plans and intentions than Ukraine’s, as the Russian government is riddled with American spies. However, these leaks may seriously compromise CIA spies and informants, and risk blowing the human intelligence sources the U.S. relies on to clarify the Kremlin’s thinking.
Of course, that’s merely one piece of the smoking aftermath of these leaks. There’s also the question of how these documents might impact America’s alliances, Ukraine’s upcoming offensive, and the war in Ukraine more generally.
In other words, when the United States leaks, entire nations get wet. That’s particularly true during this bitter war of aggression, as two nuclear superpowers face off on either side of the divide, with little room for error.