The Biggest Surprise in the U.S. Intelligence Leak

U.S. policy analysts — they’re just like us!

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics at The Fletcher School

It’s been a bad week for U.S. national security. 

There have been multiple reports of a damaging leak of U.S. intelligence files that initially appeared on a Discord channel and then spread online to various social media sites. The New York TimesWashington PostCNN, and Yahoo News all have extensive coverage of the information contained in the files. They appear to have emanated from the Pentagon’s J2 — the Joint Staff’s intelligence arm. Joshi Shashank, the defense editor for the Economistcharacterizes the information dump as the “worst mass leak since Snowden 10 years ago.” Indeed, there are a lot of documents classified as “TOP SECRET” and “FIVE EYES ONLY.” 

The substance of the leaks touch on a variety of strategic hotspots, most prominently the war in Ukraine. It turns out that the United States has penetrated a lot of the Russian national security bureaucracies. But the leak does not stop there. As the Yahoo report notes, the documents, “pertain to a host of sensitive American national security matters, including the ongoing U.S.-led coalition campaign to defeat the Islamic State group, the disposition of U.S allies in the Middle East and Europe with respect to Russia, and the United Kingdom’s military plans for countering China in the Pacific.”

All the reports indicate the leak is significant enough to affect Ukraine’s ability to prosecute its planned spring counteroffensive. What’s particularly damaging is the revelation of sources and methods. The Times notes, “While the documents were compiled by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, they contain intelligence from many agencies, including the National Security Agency, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and the Central Intelligence Agency.” WaPo reports, “Senior Pentagon leadership restricted the flow of intelligence Friday in response to the revelations, two U.S. officials said. One described the clampdown as unusually strict and said it revealed a high level of panic among Pentagon leadership.” And as Shashank explains, “US slides are absolutely full of detail on sources & methods on issues well beyond Russia/Ukraine. The phrase ‘according to a signals intelligence report’ comes up frequently. There are details on technical means of collection. This is a very damaging leak.” 

The hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World does not disagree with any of that assessment. The fallout from this leak will — appropriately — be the focus of the follow-on reporting (not to mention any official investigation of how this information was obtained). 

Still, what I find interesting is not the sources and methods of the intelligence, but the conclusions drawn from this information by analysts. One of the central premises of intelligence-gathering is that governments have access to more information than civilians like myself. And one of the central premises of the academic study of intelligence-gathering is that policymakers tend to overrate the value of human intelligence and underrate the value of open-source intel. Does U.S. intelligence analysis jibe with these assessments?

Let’s review the most relevant pieces of analysis (as opposed to sources) covered in these stories: 

  • WaPo: “A Feb. 23 overview of fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region forecasts a ‘grinding campaign of attrition’ by Russia that ‘is likely heading toward a stalemate, thwarting Moscow’s goal to capture the entire region in 2023.’”
  • WaPo: “A summary of analysis… says that Beijing is likely to view attacks by Ukraine deep inside Russian territory as ‘an opportunity to cast NATO as the aggressor,’ and that China could increase its support to Russia if it felt the attacks were ‘significant.’”
  • NYT: “Another entry talks about an information campaign being planned by the G.R.U., Russia’s military intelligence unit, in Africa trying to shape public opinion against the United States and ‘promote Russian foreign policy.’”
  • Yahoo: “[There is] an assessment that Viktor Orban’s Hungary, a NATO and EU member—albeit one still close to Russia—now considers the U.S. to be one of its most significant geopolitical adversaries.”
  • CNN: “Jerusalem ‘likely will consider providing lethal aid under increased US pressure or a perceived degradation’ in its relationship with Russia.”

You know what? I’m not seeing much in these reports that I find particularly surprising or shocking. All of these assessments mirror the takes one would get on each of these questions from analysts with zero access to classified intelligence. The war in Ukraine is grinding towards a stalemate? Well knock me down with a feather! China wants to help Russia but will be constrained from doing so unless Ukraine overreaches? Yeah, that’s not rocket science. Orban’s hostility to the West is also common knowledge, as is Russian efforts to sway public opinion in sub-Saharan Africa. The only mild surprise is the assessment of Israel’s malleability in its foreign policy, but I suspect that finding was made prior to the recent instability

The other major “revelation” is that the United States spies on its allies and partners; assessments include analyses on policy debates in Canada, Israel, South Korea, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom. I put revelation in quotes, however, because it’s not really a surprise. There will be some awkward moments as a result of this becoming common knowledge, as was the case a decade ago with the Snowden stories. But as WaPo noted, “a European intelligence official worried that if Washington restricts allies’ access to future intelligence reports, it could leave them in the dark.” In other words, U.S. allies prefer retaining access to U.S. intel over the performativity of being outraged about U.S. spying. I anticipate a milder reaction in 2023 than 2013. 

This might explain why the fallout from the leak might be less than meets the eye. As Yahoo notes, “pro-Russian commentators who originally saw the Ukraine files as valuable ‘gotchas’ now doubt their authenticity after evidence of their doctoring came to light. Instead, they believe the U.S. or Ukraine released these texts as a psychological operation meant to dupe the Kremlin.”

I am not trying to be Pollyannish here; the sources and methods that have been uncovered are a bad national security leak. It is still interesting, however, to learn that U.S. intelligence analysis matches the open-source analysis that so many of the rest of us are doing.

(This post is republished from Drezner’s World.)

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