Pentagon Leaks: The real embarrassment for US is that the leaks occurred, not their content
Amb P S Raghavan, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The episode raises serious questions about how the Pentagon deals with classified documents. Meanwhile, the US will be relieved that bilateral relationships didn’t take a hit and that the leaks don’t alter the fundamental reality of the Ukraine war that it has reached a military stalemate.

Many features of the recent leaks of highly classified information from the Pentagon – the media on which they first appeared, the long gestation before entering the public domain, and the flaky nature of the revelations – recall a smoke and mirrors exercise, more than a serious security lapse.

The documents were posted in early-March on a social media channel of a computer game and other similar channels. Mainstream press and social media picked them up in April, forcing governments to take cognisance and respond.

Minimal Impact On Ukraine

The most-quoted reports are about weaknesses in Ukraine’s military situation – manpower, weapons, artillery and air defences – that may limit the success of its much-anticipated spring counter-offensive against the Russian army. Detailed maps of force structures, battlefield positions, weapons inventory, and manpower deployments buttress this assessment.

The reports also add that shortcomings in Russia’s military organisation and equipment may thwart its goal to capture all of northern and eastern Ukraine in 2023. The overall prognosis is therefore of a military stalemate for many more months.

The Biden Administration has acknowledged the leaks, without confirming their authenticity, though hinting that Russia altered one of the reports to show lower Russian casualties and higher Ukrainian casualties than contained in the original.

Those who have followed the course of the Russia-Ukraine war will not find startlingly new revelations in these documents. It was well-known that a successful Ukrainian counter-offensive would need early augmentation of weaponry from the West and their integration into war-ready formations, with trained manpower. The assessments made in February/March remain valid even today.

Both countries have put the embarrassment of the leaks behind them. Ukraine said the reports were inaccurate and, in any case, its military strategy has since evolved. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken telephoned his counterpart Dmitry Kuleba and, according to Kuleba, “vehemently” rejected doubts on Ukraine’s capacity to win on the battlefield. The US readout did not mention a belief in Ukraine’s military victory, but confirmed the US support for Ukraine “for as long as it takes”.

America And Friends

The leaked intelligence reports on other countries provoked a variety of reactions. One asserts that Egypt may be secretly producing 40,000 rockets for covert supply to Russia. Both Russia and the US have been wooing Egypt assiduously in recent years, and the US national security spokesman was quick to assert there was no evidence of it supplying weapons to Russia.

Another report describes discussions in the South Korean President’s office about the legality of supplying ammunition to the US for sending to a country at war (Ukraine). The US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin telephoned his South Korean counterpart and they agreed that much of the document was “fabricated”.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was quoted as describing the US as a top adversary of his Fidesz party. Hungary did not deny this report; a party representative merely clarified that Orban meant the Biden Administration, not the US! A top-secret CIA report says Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, encouraged its officers to join public protests against the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial reforms. The Israeli government issued an indignant denial.

Recent history suggests that the outrage of US allies and friends over the snooping will soon subside. The reality in today’s world is that every country with capability for electronic espionage will use it, on ally and foe alike. Public remonstrations are pointless, since (as the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, told a Senate Committee in 2017) you do not throw rocks from within a glass house.

Plugging Leaks

The real issue about the leaks is not their content, but the fact of their occurrence. One intriguing question is how the vaunted intelligence agencies of the US and its ‘Five Eyes’ partners (Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand) failed to detect sensitive documents lying in public view (albeit in obscure social media channels) for over a month.

If they did, why did they not take them down? Or doctor them, as it is claimed one of them was? It begs the question of whether there was some reason for leaving them out there. We may not get answers to these questions in the near-term.

The Pentagon is reportedly considering a stronger regime of restricting circulation of classified documents on a need-to-know basis. This is a balance that every security establishment strives for: ensuring that everyone with a role in an operation, however peripheral, can access relevant information, while excluding others, even with security clearances. It is critical to get the balance right – both for successful operations and to prevent leakage of sensitive information.

Published in Money Control on 14 April 2023

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