On April 14, an employee of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, Jack Teixeira, was indicted for leaking classified information related to the war in Ukraine.
However, the investigation into this leak is far from over. The main question that needs answering is how a 21-year-old had access to top-secret military information, although the authorities have explained this situation is not entirely unusual for the American Armed Forces, which employs a great deal of young servicemen and experts. The way the documents were leaked might seem peculiar, as photographed copies of the documents were posted on a Discord group with access restricted to members only – a group of teenagers Teixeira wanted to “impress”.
The very nature of the leaked information has also raised a few eyebrows. From the very beginning, experts have warned that the data has been probably modified and swapped, at least in terms of the losses sustained by Russia and Ukraine. Furthermore, several countries, Ukraine first and foremost, but also South Korea, Australia and Great Britain have pointed out the leaks are a mix of true and false information – a claim that could be true, of course, which at the same time could be interpreted as an attempt to downplay their negative impact. Even the concept of “disclosure” can now be challenged – after all, that the Americans are spying on everyone, even on their allies, is of no surprise if we look at all the different “leaks” that occurred over the years. There has also been talk about the war entering a phase of attrition – Ukraine is confronted with a shortage of military equipment, its troops requiring refitting and retraining by NATO countries. The very presence of American forces in Ukraine (to ensure the protection of personnel overseeing US weapon deliveries and their operation) had been confirmed by the Pentagon as early as last November.
Finally, Russia’s reaction to the leaks raises further suspicion. While the Pentagon leaks virtually confirm a number of disinformation narratives fostered by Moscow propaganda in recent years, the Russians have displayed unusual caution, some voices saying a broader disinformation stratagem might be in play. Could this be truly a honey trap, or, rather, is everyone too embarrassed to acknowledge the fact that the Americans had such extensive access (with the help of assets and technology) to Russian classified information?
The online trail of “Top Secret” documents: from a gamers’ forum to social media and international outlets. What the documents say about the war in Ukraine
The first to signal the information leak were the Ukrainian secret services at the end of February. Ukrainian intelligence officers were displeased to discover that their own colleagues in Belarus had attacked a Russian recon aircraft, despite being specifically told not to. And this was just the beginning. A few days later, some of the files discovered by Ukrainian intelligence were posted on Telegram, the Russians’ (and some of the Ukrainians’) favorite social network. It later transpired that many such documents had been circulated online for a while – possibly as early as December 2022, on Discord, a video chat platform popular among gamers. In recent weeks, the number of classified documents leaked online had multiplied. Washington Post wrote that its journalists alone had reviewed three hundred such files.
What we do know – or better said, what the authorities have told us – is the source of the leak. The disclosed documents were allegedly CIA classified information, limited only to a select number of decision-makers. The data includes a series of analyses and statistics about the war in Ukraine. The British Foreign Secretary said there is a “serious level of inaccuracy” in the widely-reported leak. Other former intelligence agents, both American and European, have told The Economist the source of the leak could truly be American government agencies.
Many of these documents trace the history of hostilities in Ukraine. The assessments compiled by the CIA provide in-depth overviews of the current state of both military camps. They also reveal Western plans to provide military equipment to Ukrainian forces, broken down in brigades and their assigned combat roles. Should it be truthful, the information greatly (and unexpectedly) benefits the Kremlin’s military strategy. Some of the most important files refer to the state of the Ukraine’s anti-air artillery, which is fully exhausted by continuous efforts at fending off Russian missile and drone attacks. New munition deliveries are expected to arrive by May 2, 2023 at the latest. According to the leaked documents, the Pentagon believes that Western air defense systems sent to Ukraine are incapable of coping with “the amount of Russian missiles and shells” launched against Ukrainian territory. The documents also assess the success rate of Ukraine’s upcoming counteroffensive. Considering the current difficulties – the undertraining of frontline troops and the need for additional ammunition – the Americans estimate the Ukrainian spring counteroffensive might fall “well short” of Kyiv’s goals of recapturing sizable territories held by the Russian army.
At the opposite end, the Russian army too is affected by attrition, which is how the leaked documents describe the current phase of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The leaked files show that casualties sustained by the Russians since the start of the invasion on February 24, 2022 stand between 35 and 43 thousand. Over 150,000 Russian servicemen were reportedly wounded, a number exceeding the official death toll published by Kyiv. Russia allegedly lost another two thousand tanks, and has “only 419 tanks” on the frontline. The documents predict the conflict “is likely heading for a stalemate throughout 2023”.
Another sensitive document refers to the presence of one hundred NATO elite special forces in Ukraine: fifty from Great Britain, seventeen from Lithuania, fifteen from France, fourteen from the USA and one from the Netherlands. The Economist writes that “the Kremlin is likely to use the disclosure to justify its narrative that it is fighting not just Ukraine, but the entirety of NATO”.
After WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, the latest confirmation that the Americans are spying on their allies comes as no shock
The documents also provide disturbing details regarding the manner of collecting intelligence, namely spying not just on the enemy, but on allies too. I was referring earlier to the story about the Russian reconnaissance aircraft and Ukrainian intelligence agents in Belarus: the Americans wiretapped their conversations, the CIA logged and documented the case, which was later leaked online, and so the agents’ superiors in Kyiv were also made aware. This is just one example – many other files show that the Americans were also surveilling officials from Israel, South Korea and Hungary, as well as employees of the International Atomic Energy Agency. One document specifically notes that Israel’s secret intelligence, the Mossad, had allegedly encouraged Israelis to participate in mass protests against the government’s judicial reform plan (or rather the leadership of Mossad did not forbid agency personnel to join protests against the Netanyahu Cabinet, which is a major difference). Another file claims the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres is “too willing” to accommodate Russian interests.
The latest episode of leaked documents has rekindled public interest for the 2013 scandal linked to Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA spying on Germany’s then chancellor, Angela Merkel. According to an NSA report obtained by the German and British dailies Der Spiegel and The Guardian, the Americans had tapped Merkel’s phone as early as 2002. Moreover, in 2010 president Obama had been briefed about the NSA’s operation, choosing to continue surveillance actions. The nature and extent of the wiretapping are unclear – we don’t know whether this was simply a listing of contacts in the German Chancellor’s phone or phone conversations were actually recorded. What is certain is that 2023 marks ten years since France and Germany have called on the USA to sign a so-called “no-spy agreement” (the kind of which the Americans have in place with Great Britain, Australia and Canada), which Washington still refuses to consent to.
To a certain extent, information leaks have become virtually institutionalized since WikiLeaks first made headlines. Set up in 2006 by the Australian activist Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks website now claims to have amassed over 1.2 million classified documents regarding a series of disconcerting disclosures from the world of politics, banking or diplomacy. Meanwhile, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange have scooped major distinctions and awards, such as the New Media Award or the UK Media Award.
Moscow’s uncharacteristic silence
Against this backdrop, pundits have noted Russia’s restraint. The official reactions journalists expected, for instance in connection to the involvement of NATO officials, are late to appear. So far, Russian analysts have been the only ones to comment on the leaked documents, and they have all recommended approaching the authenticity of the information with a grain of salt. A well-established war analyst, Yuri Podolyaka, commented on the Russian public television that the leaks were “planted” to mislead Russia. In the same vein, Olga Skabeeva, the host of the “60 minutes” show on Rossiya-1, claimed “the West would do anything to create the image of a weak Ukraine, whose shells are running out and which has nothing left at all”. As a result, Moscow would grow overconfident in its victory odds, become less vigilant and let its guard down, which would make winning the war a lot harder.
Meanwhile, to further inflate the cloak-and-dagger aura of the Pentagon leaks, the documents posted online are erased for fear of official investigations, and the original files have become increasingly harder to find. The suspect the FBI has taken into custody, Jack Teixeira, was indicted by a Boston court of law and put on pre-trial arrest. It is hard to say whether controversy will continue to surround this story or if we have truly seen the last of this new scandal about spies and classified information linked to the hottest topic of the day: the war in Ukraine.