America’s Classified Leak Problem

AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman

The recent leak of hundreds of classified documents detailing information about the war in Ukraine reveal little that was not already speculated about within the public domain, but nonetheless can be used to undermine support for Ukraine and turn America’s allies against the country. The leaks therefore represent a gift to America’s adversaries – one delivered on a platter for the third time in 13 years by a Democrat administration that is unable to prevent leaks by low-level staff.

Karl Marx said that events in history repeat twice: first as tragedy then as farce. Over a decade ago, Bradley Manning, an intelligence officer assigned to the headquarters of David Petraeus, then leader of U.S. forces in Iraq, provided Wikileaks with tens of thousands of documents, including diplomatic cables in which U.S. officials discussed conversations with foreign leaders.

The result was enormous damage not just to U.S. operations, but a chilling effect on the willingness of allies to share information and of foreign figures to speak with Americans out of fear the contents of their conversations might leak.

Then came the Edward Snowden leaks 10 years ago. Then, a little over two months ago, classified materials relating to the military situation in Ukraine leaked on a videogame message board as part of an online argument.

Manning and Snowden, for all their delusions of grandeur, at least maintained a pretense of acting on a higher principle. These most recent documents were apparently released to win an online argument.

The pointless nature of their disclosure was only exceeded by the farcical process of their subsequent proliferation as Russian agents rushed to distribute them, after taking care to alter the numbers contained within to lower Russian casualties to the implausible levels consistent with the Russian Ministry of Defense’s figures.

It is widely believed that U.S. intelligence agencies have engaged in edits of their own, with the result that multiple “versions” of the leaked documents exist, all of which contain different numbers for Russian and Ukrainian losses, reserves, ammunition, and other resources.

The one thing the leak was intended to do, settle online arguments between rival groups of military nerds, is the only thing it has failed to accomplish.

Then there is the content itself. Attention in the media has focused on two elements of the leaks.

The first group of documents are general intelligence briefings, which are collections of rumor and speculation, some more well-founded than others. These range from speculation that Russian generals may be conspiring to lose the war behind the back of a cancer-ridden Putin to suggestions that the Mossad played a role in orchestrating protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The first rumor seems likely to be dismissed, but the latter is almost certain to exacerbate Israel’s domestic crisis even if it is no better-founded than the rumors about Putin’s health. It lines up with what factions in a highly-polarized Israeli political space already suspect to be true.

The same is true of references to U.S. espionage against Japan and South Korea contained in the leaked documents. This can hardly be news to anyone familiar with the nature of signals intelligence or who has read about efforts to monitor Merkel’s communications in Snowden’s leaks.

The revelations will nevertheless put the United States in the wrong, making it hard for Washington to make demands of its Asian allies at a time when China’s rise poses an imminent threat, while making it equally hard to resist demands they might make on trade.

The second group of leaks deal more specifically with the military situation in Ukraine. Coverage has focused on the perceived pessimism of U.S. assessments of Ukraine’s position in many of the leaked documents, including criticism of the decision to try and hold the city of Bakhmut, as well as chronic shortages of ammunition.

These should be read with a grain of salt. Foreign military observers have been professional critics for centuries, operating from the starting point that if they were in charge, or the locals just did everything they said, things would go much better.

In turn, these reports often carry the conviction that everything that has gone wrong is because the locals ignored their advice. U.S. General Phillip Sheridan managed to find plenty of things to disparage about the Prussian Army which crushed France in a matter of weeks in 1870, and it is hardly surprising U.S. officers take issue with Ukrainian decisions today.

Criticism of the decision to defend Bakhmut is a prime example of this. Leaked documents show U.S. observers echoing in private the public worries that the city was operationally surrounded back in February and that the Ukrainian army risked destruction if it did not withdraw. Nearly two months later, the city is still in Ukrainian hands and the Russian offensive appears to be bogged down.

Concerns about the speed with which Ukraine consumes ammunition have been appearing for over a year. It would be highly suspicious if foreign observers did not accuse the army of wasting resources. U.S. military attaches were accusing South Vietnam of profligately wasting American ammunition in 1975 even as South Vietnamese units had long since run out.

Other documents suggesting that, at current rates, Ukraine’s air defenses would be degraded by May, ignored that those rates were not sustained by Russia, which ran out of air assets to maintain its bombardment campaign months ago.

Ukraine nonetheless has grounds for anger, and fear for that matter. As with the leaks regarding global events, the risk is not that the information itself is revealing things which were not already suspected, but that the claims will be used to advance the preexisting agendas of those who argue that U.S. stockpiles cannot sustain support for Ukraine, the war cannot be won, and Ukraine should make a compromise peace before it is too late.

A narrative has picked up steam in U.S. domestic politics where the objection to aid to Ukraine is not cost, but rather that the U.S. lacks the production capacity to provide Ukraine with weapons. Leaked reports that Ukrainians are wasting ammunition will be used to suggest that the U.S. is incapable of meeting Ukraine’s needs and therefore should not try. Skepticism about Ukrainian gains in the leaks will be used to justify limiting support for Ukraine’s offensive.

While the greatest impacts will be political, there are also military implications. It is hard to measure these. Both Ukrainian and U.S. officials have suggested Ukraine may be forced to scrap or alter plans for the spring offensive, the latter while simultaneously playing down the importance of the leaks. This may well reflect reality, but it might be disinformation itself. By suggesting that it might keep existing plans, alter them, or scrap them entirely in favor of something else, Kyiv keeps Moscow guessing and reduces the value of the leaks.

What cannot be mitigated quite so easily is the damage to the credibility of the United States as a partner. If the United States cannot keep secrets safe, then it is dangerous to share anything with Washington which you do not wish to be publicly available.

Ukraine came under pressure last fall to share details of its military planning with the Pentagon as a condition of aid, only to see those materials leak. It cannot escape the notice of many foreign allies that despite Joe Biden’s claim that he would restore trust in America, the three greatest leaks of confidential material occurred under either Biden or his former boss, Barack Obama (Manning 2010, Snowden 2013).

Angry statements of outrage are of little value if the perpetrators cannot be found, as Chief Justice John Roberts learned when it came to the leak of the Dobbs decision. The Pentagon’s official line is that this leak may cost lives, but they cannot identify who the leaker was, nor do they even know the full contents of what may have leaked. Can anyone imagine the Mossad sharing intelligence with Washington after the U.S. allowed the leak of speculation they were plotting a coup? What Mossad agent would dare risk their name showing up in a U.S. file, when the next file leaked might include speculation of treason? It would be a career-ender.

The leaks betray a lack of seriousness about the basic functions of the Pentagon and intelligence agencies. The Biden administration seems determined to pursue “equity” initiatives even to the exclusion of competence. Even if those efforts are unrelated, the time and resources focused on irrelevant political staffing detract from efforts to ensure the basic security of U.S. intelligence.

The continued public focus by the administration is now no longer merely annoying conservative Americans. It is creating an impression among foreign partners, whether in Kyiv or Seoul that the U.S. thinks the security of their secrets is less important than domestic virtue signaling. That is something America cannot afford.

Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.

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