On That DoD Intelligence Leak Shocker
The coins of the realm are needs and trust. Not much will—or can—change after the shouts die down
I’VE BEEN CATCHING UP recently on Berlin Station, the remarkably prescient spy drama that ran for three seasons from 2016 to 2019 on the Epix (now MGM+) channel. It features the station's hunt for a colleague who’s been leaking embarrassing CIA documents to a German newspaper, among them that the agency was eavesdropping on the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Another thread revolves on an attempted coup in Estonia by Russian “little green men,” complete with a cyber takedown of Tallinn’s electrical grid.
As I said, prescient. Real life events, particularly Vladimir Putin’s “active measures” campaigns in the U.S. and its European allies, eclipsed Berlin Station’s scripts. The show didn’t fare that well with critics, garnering only 60 per cent on the Tomatoreader, but it was an overwhelming favorite with viewers (91 percent approval). Evidently the hoi polloi were far more receptive to the idea that the spooks on both sides are not only too often up to no good, but that some in the woodwork are all too ready to spill the beans.
Last week’s leak of top secret Pentagon assessments of the Ukraine situation is only the latest in a firecracker string of revelations that have cooked off from the earliest days of the Cold War, from the Cuban missile crisis through Vietnam, Iran-Contra, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name just a few.
Last week, some real, and ostensibly very damaging, secrets were exposed in the purloined DoD documents, in particular U.S. estimates that Ukraine’s battlefield losses have been far greater than generally known, and its military almost certainly under equipped to oust Russian forces from the country, let alone prevail, in a war of attrition.
This may have come as a depressing shock to those whose views on the war are derived solely from pro-Ukraine Western news media and the flood of Kyiv’s impressive battlefield propaganda. But you don’t have to be a champion of Ukraine’s cause (as I am) to accept, as one anonymous but persuasively tuned in military analyst put it in a Substack column (now banned from Twitter), “very little in the leak is actually ‘surprising’ or unknown information because much of it very accurately reflects all the projections that those of us who are on the ball have been making, and so it serves more as a confirmation of known facts.”
To be sure, the Kremlin circulated its own versions of the documents with altered order-of-battle numbers purporting to show an overwhelming Russian superiority in battlefield casualties, troops strengths, and armor. But they were quickly found out. “The Russian urgency and amateurish forgeries validates how stressed they are to sow divisions among the allies and try to put on a good show at home,” former CIA operations officer Douglas London observed to SpyTalk.
Meanwhile, one inference that can be drawn from the documents is that U.S. intelligence has impressively penetrated the Kremlin, its armed forces and its intelligence agencies. With some notable exceptions, the CIA’s accurate warnings of Vladimir Putin’s plans to invade Ukraine back in February 2022, followed by the close tracking since then of Russian military movements, arms depots, communication nodes, fuel dumps, leadership struggles and morale should have long ago made that clear. The documents double down on that.
“A single page in the leaked trove reveals that the U.S. intelligence community knew the Russian Ministry of Defense had transmitted plans to strike Ukrainian troop positions in two locations on a certain date in February and that Russian military planners were preparing strikes on a dozen energy facilities and an equal number of bridges in Ukraine,” The Washington Post reported. “The documents reveal that U.S. intelligence agencies are also aware of internal planning by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. One document describes the GRU planning a propaganda campaign in African countries with the goal of turning public support against leaders who support assistance to Ukraine and discrediting the United States and France, in particular.”
The Pentagon is said to be enraged and embarrassed and furiously searching for the origin of the breach with the help of the FBI. Officials have told The New York Times and Washington Post that they greatly fear the revelations might lead Russian mole hunters to the doorsteps of American spies in their ranks. That’s a genuine worry, but a collateral upside could well be that Moscow’s counterintelligence bosses might also end up sowing so much chaos and paranoia that they jock strap GRU and FSB operations against NATO and Ukraine, much in the way James Jesus Angleton’s legendary paranoia about KGB moles in the early Cold War froze CIA operations against Russia.
Officials are also said to be embarrassed by revelations that the CIA spies on allies like Ukraine, South Korea, Israel and plenty more. The professionals there, and in every other world capital worth its name, however, would hardly be surprised. Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Ed Snowden’s 2013 dump of thousands of NSA documents alone demolished any illusions about that.
One of last week’s leaked Defense Department documents is a March 1 CIA “Intel Update,” sourced to “signals intelligence” (i.e. electronic intercepts), alleging that the Mossad’s leaders “advocated for Mossad officials and Israeli citizens to protest against the new Israeli Government’s proposed judicial reforms, including several explicit calls to action that decried the Israeli Government.” Israel denied it. And the CIA’s Hebrew linguists might have gotten that a bit wrong. According to the New York Times, “Israeli political commentators said on Sunday that the leaked assessment appeared to confuse the notions of ‘encouraging’ and ‘allowing,’ and to mix up the actions of former Mossad employees with those of current employees.”)
Whatever, any dismay in the center-right Mossad over the Netanyahu government’s radical swing to the far right would be entirely in line with standowns in Israeli military units and the mass protests that have engulfed Tel Aviv. As the Times noted, “Several hundred former Mossad employees, including five former chiefs, also signed a statement in March opposing the overhaul promoted by the government.”
So no surprise there. But it would entirely be in the interest of Israel’s far right nationalists to whip up outrage about the CIA’s eavesdropping on the Mossad. As SpyTalk reported last week, Netanyahu and his minions have already spread lies about the State Department supposedly funding the protests against them. But Israeli officials have to exercise caution on that front: One of the great open secrets in Washington is the Mossad’s operations in America, particularly in the high tech and economic spheres, not to mention politics.
As for the U.S. spying on Kyiv, Ukrainian officials are well versed in subversion, whether by the Russians or Americans. As a Soviet republic until 1991, and ruled intermittently by Russian stooges until Volodymyr Zelensky’s election in 2019, it was long riddled by Soviet and Russian agents and a regular target of the CIA, NSA and Pentagon intelligence. And then came Trump’s efforts to punish Zelensky for not digging up dirt on Hunter Biden. Biden moved quickly to repair the damage, but you can’t blame Zelensky for not dropping trou for the CIA, especially given the U.S. penchant for leaks. “I once heard the Ukrainian intel chief give a talk on how they’ve uncovered moles,” a former U.S. official told SpyTalk. “It was impressive. They know the best way to avoid spies and leaks is to tell as few people as possible.”
The Pentagon can search for the leak’s origin until the cows come home and still not find it with any certainty. No matter their Top Secret headings, the intel summaries and battle maps like the ones circling the globe this week have hundreds, if not thousands of officially cleared consumers here and among close allies. They in turn spread the juicy largesse to friends.
“Many of the leaked documents are labeled ‘NOFORN,’ meaning they cannot be released to foreign nationals. But others were cleared to be shared with close U.S. allies, including the Five Eyes alliance of the United States—Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand,” The Post reported. “U.S. intelligence about British and Canadian activities is contained in some of the documents, suggesting that the fallout from the leaks will not be limited to the United States.”
Plus, most desk admirals don’t undergo the intense lifestyle vetting applied to compartmented intelligence managers. Many don’t “get” the secrecy imperatives of their clandestine service-oriented betters.
Some officials say the U.S. will clamp down on the hose of intelligence to Pentagon offices as well as foreign allies as a consequence of the leaks. But beyond some restrictions for show—also bound to leak (or planted in the press)—that’s a nonstarter. To be useful, intelligence has to be shared. The coin of the realm is trust. True secrets, that is to say, sources and methods, will for the most part stay sacred (except for those secretly leaked to the opposition by traitors).
“The sky is not falling,” retired CIA Russia hand John Sipher tweeted. “Our most sensitive collection doesn’t make it into documents like this…”
“The hysteria in some of the media coverage is too much,” wrote senior former CIA operations officer Mark Polymeropoulos. “There is no ‘state of crisis’ with our allies. There will be some difficult conversations, yes. but my goodness, everyone needs to take a deep breath.”
It’s all over now except for the shouting.
Update: Brilliant minds think alike: From Michael Weiss and James Rushton at Yahoo, Pentagon leak raises troubling questions, but is unlikely to permanently alter U.S. relations with allies, experts say
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There is a typo in the 2nd paragraph in the "Americans Listening" section.
"That’s a genuine worry, but a collateral upside could well be that Moscow’s counterintelligence bosses might also end up sewing so much chaos and paranoia" should read "....might also end up sowing..."