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US Intel Leak Could Hamper Future Cooperation with Allies

FILE - A photo shows a sign for the Department of Defense at the Pentagon building, in Arlington, Virginia, outside Washington, April 19, 2019.
FILE - A photo shows a sign for the Department of Defense at the Pentagon building, in Arlington, Virginia, outside Washington, April 19, 2019.

The recent leak of dozens of top-secret documents, including Defense Department assessments of the war in Ukraine, has sparked concern that the information they contain might help Russia in the war it began in 2022, and that it may make it more difficult for U.S intelligence agencies to operate in the future.

Among other things, the documents include detailed assessments of Ukrainian and Russian strengths and weaknesses on the battlefield, the timing of expected deliveries of new weapons systems, and the revelation that Ukraine’s air defenses are worryingly short on ammunition.

The information included in the leaked files suggests that U.S. intelligence services have extraordinary insight into the workings of the Russian military, giving them the ability to provide Ukrainian forces with advance knowledge of impending attacks and of where to concentrate their own strikes on Russian forces.

The documents also provide a window into the extent to which the U.S. effort to support Ukraine has involved the coordination of multiple U.S. government and foreign intelligence services, not all of which are naturally inclined to share their findings with one another.

Leak discovered

Beginning with a report in The New York Times late last week, journalists and researchers have uncovered dozens of classified documents mostly related to the war in Ukraine, posted to various social media sites, including Discord — a messaging platform popular with gamers — Twitter and Telegram.

The identity of the person or persons who posted the documents remains unknown, though the Pentagon has said that many of them appear to be photographs of official Department of Defense documents. In at least one case, the documents have been altered to suggest that U.S. estimates of Russian losses in Ukraine are lower, and estimates of Ukrainian losses are higher, than they actually are.

Researchers are still working to try to understand when and where the documents were first made public, but some appear to have been put online in an obscure chat group on Discord more than one month before news organizations noticed them.

Bellingcat, the Amsterdam-based open-source intelligence collective, has reported that some of the documents may have been online as early as January. In conversations with Discord users, Bellingcat said it has learned that there may be more documents available than have been discovered so far. Some of the original Discord forums in which the documents were shared have since been shut down.

Department of Justice investigating

Over the weekend, a Pentagon spokesperson said the Department of Defense had referred the leak to the Department of Justice for investigation. It is a criminal offense for a person with security clearance to make classified information public without permission.

“One of the first things the Department of Justice will be required to do is determine the universe of people who had access to this information,” said Gary Ross, a former special agent who worked in counterintelligence during a 27-year career spanning multiple U.S. defense and intelligence agencies.

“Then, the investigation would attempt to determine who could have potentially disclosed that information to someone who was not authorized to receive it,” Ross, now the director of intelligence studies at the Washington-based teaching site of Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, told VOA.

However, Ross said the pool of people with access to the information involved in the leak is potentially quite large, given the U.S. governmentwide effort to support Ukraine.

Victim of its own success

Longtime veterans of the intelligence community said the leak simultaneously highlights the success of the U.S. effort to gather intelligence on the war in Ukraine and endangers it.

Joseph Wippl, a 30-year veteran of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, told VOA he was surprised by “the degree of cooperation between various government agencies that are engaged in intelligence collection” and said that there is probably “a lot of intelligence from foreign partners flowing into these assessments.”

Unfortunately, the broad range of agencies and governments involved in the effort probably made the likelihood of a leak greater, said Wippl, who is now a professor at Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies.

“It's a major leak, but one that you kind of understand given the number of people who have access to that information,” he said.

The leak might make that kind of information-sharing more difficult in the future, said Nicholas Dujmovic, a 26-year veteran of the CIA.

“This is a breach of trust,” he told VOA. “The intelligence agencies that make up the [intelligence] community can't do their work without a basic presumption of trust on the part of all of its employees. This breach — it's just maddening.”

Possible harms outlined

Dujmovic said the leaks have the potential to harm the U.S. intelligence community’s international operations on multiple levels.

He said cooperation among the intelligence-sharing group known as the “Five Eyes” — the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand — would probably not be deeply affected. However, he said relations with intelligence agencies less closely aligned with the U.S. might suffer, as they question whether sharing information is worth the risk of exposure.

Dujmovic, now an assistant professor and director of the intelligence studies program at The Catholic University of America, said he is most concerned about the impact the leaks might have on recruiting human sources of intelligence in the future.

“If you're somebody thinking about becoming a spy for the CIA, for example … then you really have to think twice about this, because a leak like this could cost you your life,” he said. “This is something that could have a chilling effect on our ability to recruit these kinds of sources that we need, desperately, on the human side of things.”

He added, “Anybody who has been an intelligence professional is going to feel nauseated reading about this.”

Limited utility to Russia

While the leaked information makes it clear that U.S. intelligence agencies have considerable insight into the plans and thinking of Russia’s military leadership, experts said they doubted the revelations will provide the Kremlin with very much new information about U.S. capabilities and the extent of Washington’s cooperation with Ukraine.

“The Russians weren't born yesterday,” said Wippl. “They probably had a pretty good assessment of U.S capabilities, as well as assistance to the Ukrainians. They probably have their own sources in Ukraine, so it's not like it completely surprised them. But it certainly will encourage them to button down on their own security as much as they can.”