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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


Not Hansel, not Gretel.

One of the big stories of the past week has been the leak of classified US intelligence papers. These are clearly one of the most damaging leaks in many years. The Edward Snowden leaks back in 2013, which disclosed the extent of surveillance by the National Security Agency and its allies in the Five Eyes network, probably count as the last leak of comparable significance.

The ‘top secret’ documents cover a range of foreign intelligence matters from Chinese activities to operations by Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad to Ukraine. The papers on Ukraine attracted most of the initial media attention and this might suggest that they are the most damaging materials. Files on other topics may have been leaked as part of an effort to cover the leaker’s tracks, or true goal, as much as anything else.

These latest documents appear to have been dribbling out for weeks, possibly since January, though no one took notice until the end of last week. The journey of the leaked documents – from a messaging platform used by computer gamers called Discord (I doubt I’m alone in not having heard of Discord before last week) to Telegram to Twitter – has been described by Bellingcat.

That these were leaked via social media is both unusual and quite interesting. The source of the uploaded documents may think that this makes it harder for the American intelligence agencies to track them down, as it well may owing to deletions and encryptions of files, though I expect only very briefly.

The documents have not been obtained through hacking: the leaked documents comprise materials photographed and scanned by someone rather than being the original documents. That narrows down the number of potential people who could be behind their acquisition considerably, since it appears to be someone who had physical access to the original documents, which the media are describing as resources used in intelligence briefings.

I should make clear here that I’m writing on the basis of media reports and not a reading of the actual documents.

Who leaked the documents?

Someone in the US intelligence community presumably took the photographs. There has been no shortage of whistleblowers in the US in the recent past and it's not surprising it has happened again. Many people will have nothing but praise for the person responsible; many other people will think ill of that person. I do not wish to get into taking sides on that. In DC it will be felt as a betrayal of the state.

People have a range of motivations for ‘betraying’ their country. The popular imagination, owing to conditioning during the cold war, believes that people steal secret information because of ideological motives. But scholarly research finds that the reason is oftener than not financial or personal grievances. Robert Hanssen, who passed US intelligence documents to Russia for more than two decades, was motivated by money in the first instance. Chelsea Manning, who leaked US military documents to Wikileaks, appears to have been disgruntled with how her employer treated her.

Consequently, the motivation of the ‘source’ – something which cannot be known until that person is identified – is important for understanding whether they acted alone or in coordination with a state actor or agency. That is an important question because people have been quick to raise these kinds of concerns. One ‘former senior Pentagon official’ was quoted in the New York Times: ‘It was a deliberate leak done by someone that wished to damage the [sic] Ukraine, US and NATO efforts.’ Ukrainian officials were quick to connect the leaks to Russian disinformation, which might be interpreted as suggesting deeper Russian involvement in their public dissemination.

With those points in mind, here is my take on who is responsible, based on some cursory thoughts on who is damaged most by them. I am restricting my comments to matters relating to Ukraine since this appears, at first glance, to be the most damaging information.

Damage to the United States

Frankly, the leaks are damaging for everyone. They are most obviously damaging for the United States. These are confidential Pentagon documents, after all, including CIA briefing materials.

Officials in the US have more or less confirmed their authenticity and the US government gains nothing. The documents give an indication of US espionage capabilities, for example by revealing its abilities to forewarn the Ukrainian military where missile strikes are being directed. Knowledge of this will be hugely advantageous to other rivals, especially Russia. This is why several people were quick to accuse Russia of involvement (but why put such prized knowledge in the public domain?). Russia’s counterclaim – that this is western misinformation – rings hollow given the obvious damage to US interests.

The documents further appear to damage the US by revealing that it has been eavesdropping on allies, including South Korea and Ukraine’s leaders. This, mind, is hardly surprising. The US has been caught spying on its allies in the past. One of the revelations of the Snowden leaks was that the National Security Agency had been listening to Angela Merkel’s calls on her personal mobile phone. This helped US-German relations not at all. There was even debate among German politicians about offering Snowden asylum in Germany.

The US is clearly having to smooth frictions with its allies and nervous about what else might be leaked in the coming days and weeks.

Damage to America’s NATO allies

The documents show that the UK, France, Latvia and the US have a small number of special forces on the ground inside Ukraine. The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued a cursory ‘denial’. It was no such thing: the MoD did not dispute the fact of British special forces being inside Ukraine, and indeed there have previously been intimations of this, rather it has spoken of a ‘serious level of inaccuracy’ in the documents and challenged how the information might be interpreted.

The revelation of western personnel in Ukraine is a gift to the Russian propaganda machine which insists its country is at war with NATO. Western officials will emphasise the small numbers (50 British personnel and 47 from the other countries in total) and that the label ‘special forces’ might be somewhat misleading as to their actual activities. Still, it is a clear gift to Russian propaganda.

Damage to Russia

Thus – another reason suspicion inevitably and quickly fell on Russia for having a hand in the files' dissemination. But I am inclined to think that Russian agencies would keep quiet about having such a horde of information in their possession. The Americans did not know they had a leak and, now that they are apprised of the fact, they will be actively trying to figure out how the materials got out and prevent a repeat.

Moreover, the documents include slides showing estimated numbers of Russians dead. The revelation of fatalities is embarrassing. A blatantly doctored version of the relevant document quickly appeared, downplaying the number of fatalities (35.5k Russian dead became 17.5k; with Ukrainian fatalities raised from 17.5k to 71.5k), but that has been exposed rather awkwardly even on a Russian state TV channel. And Russian state TV has certainly not liked what its pundits are discovering in the leaked documents about their own levels of equipment, maintenance and troop morale.

If this was a Kremlin-sanctioned leak of materials for propaganda purposes, then it was especially clumsy. That is not out of keeping with past Russian policy, but I assume the Kremlin has a little more competence than to leak unfavourable data on its own fatalities (information it has been actively trying to conceal until now). The Photoshopping looks like a desperate and crude cover up rather than strategy. On the other hand, a Russian intel agent dissatisfied with the regime could well be responsible for sharing the undoctored files and that seems quite plausible.

Russia will also be embarrassed at the apparent US penetration of its intelligence services disclosed through the materials, although such knowledge of US espionage capabilities is a boon to Russia for the future.

Damage to Ukraine

The biggest potential damage to Ukraine would concern its much-vaunted ‘spring counteroffensive’. The media has been talking for months about, and talking up the prospects of, Ukraine retaking territory once spring arrives and the ground thaws.

However, if the media reports I have read are correct, then there appears to be little that meaningfully compromises whatever Ukraine’s military plans might be in these documents (though Ukraine has claimed to have altered its plans in response). What there is, though, are indications that US assessments are not as Panglossian as the rhetoric coming out of Kyiv.

Another assessment says that Ukraine is running short of missiles for its air defence systems. One might argue that this is not information Ukraine would want publicly known and that it hands Russia a decisive advantage.

But I’m not so sure. It was widely assumed last February that Russia would quickly establish air superiority, although it failed spectacularly to do so. The significance of the air battle was reflected in one of the main debates in the early phase of the war: Ukraine’s calls for NATO to set up a no-fly zone. Those calls came to naught because western leaders feared it would bring them into direct conflict with Russia. A no-fly zone would require NATO to shoot down Russian jets infringing Ukraine’s airspace and Ukraine eventually relented in its requests.

Nonetheless, if Ukraine needs missiles, it wouldn’t harm for its petitions to be moved out of the bureaucratic behind-closed-doors conversations into public. It’s true that the documents leaked cover far more than the situation in Ukraine, but as I suggested above that helps to cover tracks.

So, was another state involved?

I imagine the ‘leaker’ is a disgruntled Pentagon employee, someone who disagrees with US activities and who is acting alone. Whether they might harbour sympathies for another state is unclear. But obviously I’m only guessing and a third party might well have been involved in sharing the documents.

Undoubtedly there is information potentially damaging to Ukraine in the papers. But the leaked documents appear to obscure more than they clarify for Ukraine as far as I can make out.

So, if anyone cares for my ‘first cut’ about who distributed the materials, then I’ve given a few breadcrumbs to help to see the forest for the trees.

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