Pentagon leak raises troubling questions, but is unlikely to permanently alter U.S. relations with allies, experts say

America has suffered far worse breaches and embarrassments with allies, Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA official, told Yahoo News.

The Pentagon, seen from the air.
The Pentagon. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters) (REUTERS)
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The trove of classified Pentagon documents posted online has exposed sensitive U.S. spying operations not just on enemy states but on allies such as South Korea and Egypt, raising troubling questions about the access that low-level members of the military have to national secrets — as well as the damage they can potentially do to America’s relationships with other countries. According to a report in the New York Times, the leaker is Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old officer in the intelligence wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard who is fond of guns, racist memes and video games. To the select group of “Thug Shaker Central,” the invitation-only, male-dominated chat forum where the documents first appeared on the Discord messaging platform, Teixeira was known as “the OG.”

“He’s fit. He’s strong. He’s armed. He’s trained. Just about everything you can expect out of some sort of crazy movie,” a teenage online acquaintance said of Teixeira.

Remarkably, Teixeira, who was taken into custody on Thursday, seems to have committed a felony crime in distributing American state secrets not out of ideological fervor or for money but for attention. “He shared these documents to make his friends impressed with him,” Aric Toler, director of training and research at the Dutch investigative outlet Bellingcat, and the lead open-source investigator responsible for identifying Teixeira, told Scripps News.

As bizarre and unnerving as this breach may be, it’s not over yet.

The Washington Post has examined 300 new photographs of classified materials, “most of which have not been made public.” Worse still, there could be a lot more material than that, some of which may yet be posted and deleted in some dark corner of the internet, waiting to be ferreted out by enterprising online sleuths.

“Our intelligence collection system runs on trust,” Joshua Manning, a former analyst in the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Yahoo News of the leaker’s identification. “In this case, some random MAGA extremist defiled that trust for personal gain. The question the community and especially the Defense Department needs to ask is whether that specific unit and many others across the country and world really need this level of access.”

An infographic on the Pentagon documents
An infographic on the Pentagon documents leak created in Ankara, Turkey. (Kenan Kaplan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The U.S. now finds itself in an awkward but familiar place, more than a decade after Chelsea Manning, an Army soldier stationed in Iraq, downloaded hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. documents pertaining to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus sensitive State Department cables, and passed them to WikiLeaks for publication. Not long after Manning’s breach, intelligence contractor Edward Snowden exposed the National Security Agency’s elaborate eavesdropping programs. As in both of those incidents, U.S. diplomats are once again fielding uncomfortable phone calls with foreign counterparts in which they’re forced to answer difficult questions.

Yet former spies say the U.S. can muddle through this scandal, which, at least so far, pales in comparison to prior breaches. Even the most shocking of the Pentagon disclosures, they insist, are not shocking enough to do irreparable or even serious harm to bilateral relations. The current commander in chief agrees. “There’s nothing contemporaneous [in the documents] that I’m aware of that is of big consequence,” President Biden told reporters Thursday.

For one thing, none of the allies or partners have kicked up much of a fuss over disclosures that a broad spectrum of U.S. intelligence agencies have been spying on them, mainly on the question of where they stand with respect to Russia’s war in Ukraine, an outsize preoccupation for the Biden administration and U.S. intelligence community. In fact, a consensus is now emerging among the spied-upon nations that some if not most of these documents contain information that is “absurd,” “untrue” or “manipulated.” Those responses run counter to the characterizations of some U.S. media outlets that the U.S. intelligence breach is the most damaging in years, potentially “worse than Snowden” and the apparent cause of indigestion among several Pentagon staffers.

There is little evidence to date that the leaked documents are inauthentic or have been doctored (apart from one well-litigated example that was the result of pro-Russian social media users who fudged Ukrainian and Russian casualty figures after the fact). But if the materials do not contain shards of disinformation, it only raises the question of why America’s friends are closing ranks behind Washington to do damage control on its behalf.

South Korea

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. (Jung Yeon-Je/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

One of the most significant U.S. penetrations of a partner nation’s government detailed in the leak was that of South Korea’s National Security Office. These files, labeled “Top Secret” (the highest category of classification) and culled from a CIA intelligence brief, detail specific interactions between top South Korean officials, including the former Secretary for Foreign Affairs Lee Mun-hee and the former national security adviser Kim Sung-han, as they debated Seoul’s policy of not supplying lethal military aid to Ukraine and whether it should be changed.

The leak came just weeks before South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol is scheduled to visit the United States on April 26. That state visit is also mentioned in the intercept, with Sung-han expressing concern that any South Korean announcement of a change in their policy to supply lethal military aid to Kyiv might be seen as a quid pro quo in relation to the state visit. (The visit, as it happens, was scheduled to mark the 70th anniversary of the alliance between the two countries.)

The reaction to the breach in Seoul was largely split along party lines. Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party told foreign reporters on Tuesday that “If it is true that they have spied on us, it is a very disappointing act that undermines the South Korea-U.S. alliance, which is based on mutual trust.” President Yoon Suk-yeol’s government, meanwhile, sought to downplay the leak. A statement released by the office of the South Korean president claimed that the allegations that U.S. intelligence had heavily penetrated the South Korean government were “an absurd false suspicion.”

The statement also revealed that current South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup held a conversation with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in which both sides agreed that “quite a few of the documents in question were fabricated.” Neither Lee nor Austin have elaborated on what else they believed to be fake.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

Another possible reason for South Korea’s muted response to the spying revelations of U.S. spying is that Seoul is, by many accounts, likely guilty of the same thing. A former U.S. intelligence official told Yahoo News that, much like the Germans, the South Koreans regularly spy on the United States, primarily in order to glean crucial intelligence about their main adversary, North Korea, which the U.S. intelligence community is unwilling to share with Seoul. Indeed, another CIA intelligence briefing contained in the latest breach, also marked “Top Secret,” discusses North Korea’s tests of its intercontinental ballistic missiles. On the same page, it states that the North Koreans have been parading around a number of inactive ICBM launchers in order to trick the Americans into believing they have a more capable missile force than they actually do.

“We’ve had cases of catching South Koreans red-handed in the past trying to get our secrets about Pyongyang,” the former U.S. intelligence official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “And guess what? We’re still friends. Politically these leaks may be awkward, but no professional in our line of work would or should be shocked by anything in those files, which, by the way, are only summaries of collected intelligence. The really sensitive stuff isn’t put into these files for a reason and that reason is now evident all over the internet.”

A good portion of the contents of the leaked Pentagon files read like a mishmash of open-source information gleaned from media reports, and rumors obtained and dispatched back to Washington by American diplomats stationed overseas.

John Sipher, the former deputy head of Russia House at the CIA, told Yahoo News that the popular conception of espionage, culled from Hollywood movies and spy novels, is markedly different from the mundane realities. “We often see this assumption in our press that intelligence is this huge surprise, the keys to the kingdom that we’d otherwise not have. Often, what we collect simply confirms what we already knew, bolstering confidence in our assessments.”

A TV screen shows a news program reporting on the leaked Pentagon documents
A TV screen in a Seoul, South Korea, railway station shows a report on the leaked Pentagon documents, April 12. (Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo) (AP)

In the Ukraine-related documents, for instance, there is a lengthy write-up of internal Ukrainian government conversations about the perilous state of the Donetsk city of Bakhmut. “Catastrophic” is how Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service, characterized the situation there as of Feb. 28, by way of ordering the deployment of HUR’s elite “Kraken” unit of special operators to help stabilize Ukraine’s northern and southern flanks around Bakhmut. Yet Russian advances in the city were no secret: they had been a predominant item of Ukraine reporting for weeks around that time, both in the West and in Ukraine itself. One hardly needed Budanov’s opinion to know things were going badly for Ukraine in Bakhmut a month and a half ago.

Marc Polymeropoulos, the former head of European and Eurasian Affairs at the CIA, as well as a former case officer stationed in the Middle East, thinks Washington has seen and muddled through far worse intelligence breaches.

“I’ve read reports on these leaks suggesting that some countries will restrict intelligence-sharing with the U.S. after this,” Polymeropoulos told Yahoo News. “Bullshit. There is a massive land war in Europe. There may be some hard chats between U.S. embassies and their counterparts, but we have a war to win. In the end, we build strong bilateral ties in order to weather these storms.”

Israel and Egypt

A demonstration against the Israeli government's controversial justice reform bill
A demonstration against the Israeli government's controversial justice reform bill, in Tel Aviv, March 4. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

Two of the most revealing documents in the leak concern Middle East allies of the United States. The first, taken from a CIA intelligence update dated March 1 that was acquired from U.S. intercepts, purports to show that the heads of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, were encouraging popular protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu government’s controversial plan to limit the Israeli Supreme Court’s oversight over the constitutionality of Knesset-passed laws.

“The notion that Mossad chiefs were fomenting the protests in Israel is just not plausible,” Polymeropoulos said. “So I think there is some question on authenticity here, or a question on the quality of the analysis.”

What may have happened is that Pentagon analysts conflated news reports that the Mossad was allowing its officer corps to take part in the protests as a matter of their democratic right for foreign spy agency’s interference in the domestic political affairs of Israel. “On that note,” Polymeropoulos added, “let’s remember how flawed the U.S. military assessments have been during the entire course of the Ukraine war. The Pentagon gets a lot just plain wrong.”

The Mossad did not directly comment on the allegations contained in the leaks, but Netanyahu’s office, speaking on behalf of the intelligence agency, called them “false and unfounded,” adding that even the ostensible source material upon which they were based was also wrong. “The Mossad and its senior officials have not and are not encouraging workers at the organization to demonstrate against the government, and participate in political demonstrations in general,” the prime minister’s office said in a written statement on April 9.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaking at a summit in Cairo, Feb. 12. (Ahmad Hassan/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

The other Middle East ally cited in the trove is Egypt. The Washington Post reported that a document dated Feb. 17 details tentative plans drawn up by Egyptian President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi and senior Egyptian military officials to secretly supply Russia with “40,000 rockets,” most likely referring to munitions for the 122-millimeter Grad multiple-launch rocket system.

Egypt is the recipient of $1.3 billion annually in U.S. military assistance. Yet Sisi also enjoys strong ties with Vladimir Putin, with Egypt operating and purchasing a significant quantity of weaponry from Russia, a wide variety of small arms and Ka-52 attack helicopters. Cairo even reportedly recently inked a deal to purchase 500 T-90MS main battle tanks from Moscow, that will be assembled under license in Egypt.

In an interview on Tuesday with state-linked media outlet Al Qahera News, an Egyptian government spokesperson described the leaked reports as “informational absurdity”and claimed that the country followed a “balanced policy” with international parties.

The United Kingdom

John Healey, British Shadow Secretary of State for Defense
John Healey, British shadow secretary of state for defense. (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

The assessment seems to be taken entirely from statements made on the record by British politicians and other open sources. In fact, the whole thing seems to have originated in a speech made by Shadow Defense Minister John Healey to the Royal United Services Institute, a prominent British foreign policy think tank in London. The speech was livestreamed and later published on a number of pro-Labour news outlets.

In this case, the Pentagon was simply clicking through for intelligence.

That the U.S. is interested in the internal workings of British politics is not exactly breaking news. Among the State Department cables leaked by Manning was a write-up by the U.S. chargé d’affaires in London, Richard LeBaron, titled “Gloomy Budget and a New Scandal Torpedo Brown’s Poll Numbers,” a detailed analysis of how an adviser to then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, leader of the Labour Party, had planned to plant false rumors online about Conservative politicians, a scandal known in the U.K. as “Smeargate,” and how the exposure of the plan had adversely affected Brown’s approval ratings.

Furthermore, the United Kingdom certainly returns the compliment. In 2019, Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the United States, was forced to resign after British government “DipTels” — short for diplomatic telegrams — were leaked showing Darroch’s assessment of the Trump administration as “inept and insecure.”

As former acting U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain Lewis Lukens pointed out at the time, “Sir Kim was doing what he’s paid to do.” And what he was paid to do was reporting “honestly and frankly on the situation in Washington.”

This was but a hiccup in a special relationship between the United States and United Kingdom that has endured the Cambridge Five compromises, George Blake and much else during the Cold War and shows not even the slightest sign of growing any less special now. On Ukraine, Washington and London have been in lockstep, particularly in their disclosures of Russia’s invasion plans and intentions before Feb. 24, 2022. A high-ranking official in an allied NATO intelligence service told Yahoo News that most of what the Americans and British knew about Putin’s designs came from signals intelligence.

In this latest breach, the British government seemed to follow South Korea’s lead in disputing the veracity of the leaked information. “A significant proportion of the content of these reports is untrue, manipulated, or both,” a British defense official told the Times (U.K). “We strongly caution against anybody taking the veracity of these claims at face value and would also advise them to take time to question the source and purpose of such leaks.” British lawmaker Tobias Ellwood, a member of the ruling Conservative Party and the chair of the influential Defense Select Committee, had a less sanguine take on the leaks, saying the revelations could “endanger lives.”

Angela Merkel
Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Carlos Costa/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

Media doomcasting about worst-case scenarios is as common under these circumstances as the leak of classified information itself. Just 10 years ago, another spy scandal was similarly described as having the capacity to upend an important bilateral relationship, possibly for good.

In 2013, German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that a U.S. unit known as the Special Collection Service, jointly run by the CIA and National Security Agency, had been listening in on phone calls in Germany. And these were not just any phone calls but ones placed by top German officials including then-Chancellor Angela Merkel on her personal cellphone. Confronted with this embarrassing revelation, mined from the mountain of NSA data stolen by contractor Edward Snowden, the U.S. had a rather sheepish response: There was not currently nor would there in future be any spying on the chancellor’s phone, the implication being that there had been in the past.

The fallout in Berlin was predictably ferocious. Some German politicians demanded pausing or scuttling a much sought-after EU free-trade agreement with the U.S. (It went ahead.) Diplomats warned of a coming deep freeze in relations not just between Washington and Berlin but between Washington and Brussels. (Diplomacy continued.) Even Barack Obama, who spoke to a rapturous crowd of 200,000 at the Brandenburg Gate when running for president in 2008, was transformed overnight from progressive icon into untrustworthy snoop in German public opinion.

“Spying between friends,” Merkel rather touchingly announced at an EU summit in Brussels that October, “that’s just not done.”

Except, of course, it is, was and always will be — at least when it comes to certain friends. That fact was made amply apparent when, just two years later, Der Spiegel reported that Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service had itself been spying for years on the White House, state and treasury departments, even branches of the U.S. military.

Whereas politicians like to pretend to abide by a code of ethics and disdain acts of hypocrisy, no such covenants apply in the world’s second-oldest profession, however titillating the exposure of espionage programs may be to journalists and pundits.

“If everyone were telling the truth all the time,” John Sipher, formerly of the CIA, said, “we wouldn’t have to spy on them.”