(The Hill) — A wide-ranging leak of classified Pentagon documents has left the United States on cleanup duty as it contends with revelations detailing the extent U.S. agencies have penetrated Russian intelligence outlets and spied on allies.
The breadth of the leak and the damage it wrought is not yet fully realized. Dozens of documents from February and March labeled top secret were posted to social media platforms and hundreds more may be circulating on other niche areas of the internet.
The intelligence community is now grappling with the escape of intelligence that could be used as a roadmap for determining how the U.S. has been collecting information about Russian efforts in Ukraine — and how they can cut them off.
Meanwhile, U.S. allies — even if well aware they are being monitored by foreign powers — have had to publicly confront the revelations laid out in the documents.
“It shows the kinds of things we’re actually looking at; it shows the kinds of people we’re actually targeting and intercepting, the countries we’re targeting and intercepting,” Larry Pfeiffer, a former senior director of the White House Situation Room and chief of staff at the CIA, told The Hill.
“It potentially could be disclosing sources and methods, and it has an impact on trust between us and some of our friends. So I think it’s pretty bad.”
The Department of Defense and the intelligence community are still assessing the validity of the documents and the damage of the fallout, but State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said on Monday that “there is no question” that the document leak presents a risk to U.S. national security.
While the Pentagon is working to restrict access to sensitive information, Patel said, other agencies are working “to mitigate this impact that the release of these documents could have on U.S. national security, as well as the impact that it can have on our allies and partners.”
The documents lay out information on the timing of Russian airstrikes in Ukraine and even their targets, laying out the breadth of the U.S. ability to gain access to various Russian agencies.
“If you’re the Ukrainians, or you’re the allies, you’re pissed off as hell,” said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland.
“Especially because the Americans are usually ones to lecture about security. It’s always a bad idea to wag your finger because it can be your turn.”
William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said the striking thing about the document leak is “how good our intelligence is, and the bad thing is how we can’t keep secrets.”
What also stands out about this intelligence leak, compared to past leaks, are the potential implications on a war that is moving into its most important phase yet.
“This release is different from many in the past in that it comes just before a major counteroffensive by Ukraine. Why do we focus on it in real time? Because it has implications for the success of this counteroffensive,” he said.
Evelyn Farkas, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia during the Obama administration, said among the likely damage assessments is trying to figure out how the Russians can piece together the leaked information to their tactical or operational advantage.
“Strategically, I still think this doesn’t change anything. The Russians are on the path to losing. They’re not going to get Ukraine back. They’re not going to control the Ukrainian state,” she said.
The details of Ukraine’s military stockpiles and battlefield positions in the documents could be exploited by the Russians, she added — but it’s something that Ukraine could also leverage as it seeks more aid.
“If anything, hopefully, it’ll give a kick in the pants to the West to provide more assistance faster to Ukraine.”
Another element of the intelligence leak is the potential for Ukraine or the U.S. to undermine and exploit insecurities among Russian leadership to fuel infighting.
“There’s so much psychological jujitsu going on here,” Farkas added.
“What this does is it gets in the Russians’ heads because, how do we know all of this stuff? Right? And it’s very clear that we have ways of finding out what the Russians are doing and even how they’re deliberating. So the fact that we have this kind of insight into their system and their battlefield should make them nervous and so that’s something that we can take advantage of.”
But also among the documents reportedly circulating online is key intelligence on U.S. allies Israel and South Korea, with some of the assessments looking at the countries’ deliberations related to helping Ukraine. Seoul reportedly was weighing a scheme, under U.S. pressure, to sell artillery to a third country that could be transferred to Kyiv.
And the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office shared a rare statement from the Mossad, the country’s clandestine foreign intelligence service, denying press reports of that U.S. intelligence identified the agency as encouraging participation in protests against government plans to overhaul the judiciary.
“The Mossad and its senior officials did not – and do not – encourage agency personnel to join the demonstrations against the government, political demonstrations or any political activity,” the statement read.
South Korea, meanwhile, plans to demand the U.S. take “appropriate measures” over the leaks, NBC News reported following a briefing with a government official from the country.
The revelations of U.S. spying on Seoul come ahead of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol traveling to Washington to mark the 70th anniversary of the Korea-U.S. alliance, where he’ll participate in a State visit and address a joint session of Congress.
“It’s embarrassing. I mean, I think most national governments realize that we all spy on each other, and in a very inside baseball perspective, they kind of shrug and go ‘Oh, dammit, I can’t believe this now out in the public,’” Pfeiffer said but added there are still downsides.
“They then publicly have to take stands that can have an impact negatively on relations. At least in the short term.”
Other apparent U.S. intelligence on Israel appeared to assess the Israeli government’s willingness to provide military assistance to Ukraine — and potential weapons transfers — based on varying security scenarios. Israel provides humanitarian support and nonlethal assistance to Ukraine.
One Senate aide told The Hill that intelligence officials are concerned the documents could help adversaries and allies identify open channels of spying and close them down.
For many of the former U.S. officials who spoke with The Hill, the intelligence leak is a gut punch.
Fried said it “makes my heart race.”
“For those of us who spent our lives seeing classified information and some of the sensitive stuff,” he took a pause, “Yuck.”