As a journalist, I sometimes favor leaks – even of classified material – since far too many mundane government documents continue to be classified top secret and Americans are often denied information they should have in the name of protecting national security.
But as an American who cares deeply both about the nation's global standing and Ukraine's survival, I'm worried about the mysterious leak of a cache of potentially hundreds of Pentagon documents marked "secret" and "top secret," but not for the reason most analysts now cite.
Yes, this most recent unauthorized disclosure could potentially complicate Ukraine's impending offensive against Russian forces. And yes, it could also make U.S. allies more hesitant to share sensitive information with Washington and complicate American diplomatic relations with them.
Finally, it could also expose intelligence sources and methods to Russia, China, and other U.S. rivals.
However, whether or not the leak proves as disastrous as many mostly unnamed U.S. officials claim, it clearly suggests that 13 years after Wikileaks published some 700,000 documents, videos and diplomatic cables showing how Washington does diplomatic business, and a decade after National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified material about surveillance and other intelligence activities, the overclassification of massive amounts of government information continues and Washington is still unable to protect truly sensitive national security information against such leaks.
While several former senior U.S. officials expressed concern about the most recent leak, they said they doubted that the leak would prove as catastrophic as many U.S. officials and even reporters claim.
"The leak is only damaging as the Biden administration allows it to be," said Dov S. Zakheim, a former undersecretary of defense in the Reagan administration. If the White House responds to the reports of Kyiv's shortage of missiles and ammunition by "accelerating and expanding arms transfers to Ukraine, then they might prove useful to those who favor greater and faster American support for Kyiv.
In that case, he added, "the leaked reports of Ukraine's weakness would be, by definition, OBE," he said, or "overtaken by events. Similarly, he added, if the leaked reports of opposition within Israel's security agencies to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned judicial "reform" and other actions proposed by his more extremist coalition partners prompt him to back down, "so much the better," Zakheim said.
Allies are well aware that the U.S. and others spy on one another, or try to, said a former senior military commander who asked not to be identified by name. Therefore, he said, while the leak about U.S. spying on South Korea's internal debates about whether to supply arms and ammunition to Ukraine and at what price were "not helpful," they were "not devastating." As for the Ukraine counter-offensive, he added, "everyone knows it's coming. The questions are specifically when and where, and the leaked documents do not answer those."
Anna Borshchevskaya, a Russia expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed. While she called the largest leak of classified information since Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine "embarrassing and disconcerting," the leak itself may have "simply confirmed" what the Russians suspect the Ukrainians are planning. "It doesn't appear that there was anything in those documents that the Russians didn't already know," she said.
While the documents began appearing in January on an obscure website called Discord, which the Wall Street Journal described as trafficking in "memes, jokes and racist talk," they were not more widely distributed until March, when they were picked up by a larger community focused on the Minecraft computer game. Then last week, The New York Times published a story about them.
The main damage they appear to risk causing, said the anonymous former senior military commander, is exposing the sources and methods that the U.S. has used to spy on Russia and others. "This could result in "action by Russia or others" to close the vulnerabilities that have enabled the United States to collect sensitive information about their plans and capabilities.
While the Pentagon and intelligence agencies assess the damage, or potential damage of the leak, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department, at the behest of the Pentagon, has launched a major investigation into the leak.
Whether they will be able to determine the source and motive behind it remains uncertain. But this much seems certain, as long as Washington continues massively classifying even mundane information, and as long as government agencies fail to protect material that can truly cause damage national security, such leaks are likely to continue.