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Leak Reveals U.S. Spying On Allies And Foes

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On Saturday, as US officials and foreign allies scrambled to figure out how dozens of classified intelligence documents had ended up on the internet, they were stunned — and occasionally enraged — by the extraordinary level of detail the files revealed about how the US spies on friends and foes alike.

The documents, which appear to have come from the Pentagon and are marked as highly classified, provide tactical information about the Ukrainian war, including the country’s combat capabilities. According to one defence official, many of the documents appeared to have been prepared over the winter for Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other senior military officials, but they were also accessible to other US personnel and contract employees with the necessary security clearances.

Other documents include analysis from US intelligence agencies about Russia and several other countries, all based on classified information.

The detailed briefings and summaries provide a rare glimpse into the inner workings of American espionage. They appear to reveal, among other things, where the CIA has recruited human agents privy to closed-door conversations of world leaders; eavesdropping that shows a Russian mercenary outfit tried to acquire weapons from a NATO ally to use against Ukraine; and what types of satellite imagery the US uses to track Russian forces, including an advanced technology that appears to have barely, if ever, been publicly identified.

Officials in several countries said they were assessing the impact of the revelations, and many were left wondering how they had gone unnoticed for so long. Photographs of at least several dozen pages of highly classified documents, which appeared to have been printed and then folded into a packet, were shared on Discord, a popular gaming chat platform, on February 28 and March 2. A user shared the documents with a server called “Wow Mao.”

Some of the documents appear to be detailed Ukraine battlefield assessments prepared for senior Pentagon leaders over the winter. According to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe an ongoing investigation, officials only discovered the documents were on a public server around the time the New York Times first reported the leak, on Thursday.

According to two US officials, senior Pentagon leadership limited the flow of intelligence on Friday in response to the revelations. According to one source, the crackdown was unusually strict and revealed a high level of panic among Pentagon leadership.

A European intelligence official expressed concern that limiting allies’ access to future intelligence reports would leave them in the dark. Many of the leaked documents are labelled “NOFORN,” which means they are not available to foreign nationals. Others, however, were cleared for sharing with close US allies, including the Five Eyes alliance of the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Some of the documents contain U.S. intelligence about British and Canadian activities, implying that the fallout from the leaks will not be limited to the United States.

“We have to manage this well both internally and externally,” said a second defence official. “A number of institutions and agencies are involved.”

The Department of Justice has launched an investigation into the leak. Discord, where the first known copies of the images were posted, declined to comment.

The full scope of the leak was unknown. According to the second defence official, what appeared online was most likely the result of a single disclosure from one tranche of documents, but officials were not certain.

The Washington Post reviewed 50 pages that touched on nearly every aspect of the US intelligence apparatus. The documents detail intelligence activities at the National Security Agency, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, law enforcement agencies, and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which is responsible for a multibillion-dollar spy satellite constellation.

The documents primarily concern the Ukrainian conflict and show how the US assesses the state of the conflict and where it is headed. This analysis informs the Biden administration’s major policy decisions, such as what weapons to provide Ukraine and how to respond to Russia’s battlefield strategy.

A February 23 overview of fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region, for example, predicts a “grinding campaign of attrition” by Russia that “is likely heading towards a stalemate, thwarting Moscow’s goal of capturing the entire region in 2023.”

This confident statement, printed in boldface type, is backed up by data from “NRO-collected and commercial imagery,” a new generation of infrared satellites, signals intelligence, and “liaison reporting,” a reference to intelligence from a friendly government, about the high rate of Russian artillery fire, mounting troop losses, and the military’s inability to make significant territorial gains over the past seven months.

It is no secret that the United States bases its assessments on a variety of sources. However, US officials believe that these more detailed disclosures could help Moscow thwart some avenues for information collection. For example, one of the sources mentioned in the Feb. 23 battlefield document is “LAPIS time-series video.” Officials familiar with the technology described it as an advanced satellite system that allows for better imaging of ground objects and may now be more vulnerable to Russian jamming or interference. They suggested that LAPIS was one of the more closely guarded capabilities in the United States’ intelligence arsenal.

The documents also demonstrate something that has long been known but has never been explicitly stated publicly: The US intelligence community has infiltrated the Russian military and its commanders so thoroughly that it can warn Ukraine of impending attacks and accurately assess Russian forces’ strengths and weaknesses.

According to a single page in the leaked trove, the US intelligence community was aware that the Russian Ministry of Defense had transmitted plans to strike Ukrainian troop positions in two locations on a specific date in February, and that Russian military planners were planning strikes on a dozen energy facilities and an equal number of bridges in Ukraine.

The documents show that US intelligence agencies are also aware of internal GRU (Russian military intelligence) planning. According to one document, the GRU is planning a propaganda campaign in African countries with the goal of turning public opinion against leaders who support Ukraine’s assistance and discrediting the US and France in particular. According to the report, the Russian campaign would attempt to discredit Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, by planting stories in African media.

The documents show that the US has had numerous intelligence successes. They also demonstrate how depleted Ukrainian forces have become after more than a year of fighting.

A senior Ukrainian official said on Saturday that the leaks had enraged Kyiv’s military and political leaders, who had sought to conceal vulnerabilities related to ammunition shortages and other battlefield data from the Kremlin. The official was also concerned that more classified military intelligence would be revealed.

Meanwhile, some of the newly public intelligence could spark diplomatic controversies.

The documents show that the US gained access to the internal plans of Russia’s infamous Wagner Group, a private military contractor that supplied forces to Russia’s war effort, and that Wagner attempted to purchase arms from Turkey, a NATO ally.

Wagner personnel “met with Turkish contacts in early February to purchase weapons and equipment from Turkey for Vagner’s efforts in Mali and Ukraine,” according to one report, using a different spelling of the group’s name. According to the report, Mali’s interim president, Assimi Gota, “confirmed that Mali could obtain weapons from Turkey on Vagner’s behalf.”

The report does not say what the Turkish government knew about Wagner’s efforts or whether they were successful. However, the revelation that a NATO ally may have been assisting Russia in its war on Ukraine could be explosive, especially given Turkey’s efforts to prevent Sweden from joining the trans-Atlantic military alliance.

A Turkish government spokesperson declined to comment. The Embassy of Mali in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Two other pages from the leaked intelligence file discuss Wagner’s plans to hire Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine, as well as the Russian military’s reliance on private soldiers. These, like the report on Turkey-related meetings, cite their sources as “signals intelligence,” a reference to electronic eavesdropping and communications intercepts. Officials generally regard these as among the most fruitful forms of intelligence gathering, but they are potentially lethal if exposed.

Other intelligence reports in the leaked trove address the geopolitical implications of Ukraine’s conflict. According to a summary of analysis from the CIA’s World Intelligence Review, a daily publication for senior policymakers, Beijing is likely to view Ukrainian attacks deep inside Russian territory as “an opportunity to cast NATO as the aggressor,” and China may increase its support for Russia if the attacks are “significant.”

The alliance between Moscow and Beijing has piqued the interest of US and European officials. So far, officials say there is no evidence that China has granted Russia’s request for lethal military assistance. However, the analysis concludes that a Ukrainian attack on Moscow using weapons supplied by the US or NATO would likely indicate to Beijing that “Washington was directly responsible for escalating the conflict” and provide possible justification for China to arm Russia.

The documents also show that Washington is closely monitoring Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. According to one February briefing, Iran has recently conducted short-range ballistic missile tests. Another examines a recently released report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s efforts to expand its uranium enrichment facilities.

These reports appear to be provided to policymakers as routine updates. Another, purportedly derived from signals intelligence and “diplomatic reporting,” offers a pessimistic assessment of the IAEA’s ability to carry out its nuclear security mission on behalf of the US intelligence community.

Other reports provide up-to-date information on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, including missile tests. And, in a reminder that the US also spies on its allies, another document states that South Korea’s National Security Council “grappled” in early March with a US request that the country provide artillery ammunition to Ukraine without unduly provoking Moscow. South Korea’s national security adviser suggested selling the munitions to Poland, which controls the main weapons supply routes, because the US wanted to get the material to Ukraine as soon as possible, according to the report, which cited signals intelligence.

The original source of the leak is unknown. According to previous social media posts, the user who shared the images in February and March is based in southern California, according to the Post. On Friday, a Twitter account with the same handle and avatar image as the Discord account said it “found some info from a now banned server and passed it on.”

On Friday evening, a man who answered the door at a house registered to the Discord user’s father declined to comment. “I’m not talking to anyone,” he said, closing the door to the family’s cul-de-sac home.

A knock at the door went unanswered about three miles away, at a townhouse registered to the user’s mother. The parents did not return phone calls or text messages.

Images of some of the documents circulated on the anonymous online message board 4chan on Wednesday, and they made their way to at least two mainstream social media platforms, Telegram and Twitter. In at least one instance, it appears that a slide that was initially circulated on Discord was doctored to make it appear that fewer Russian soldiers were killed in the war than the Pentagon estimates.

There was no evidence that other documents, including those dealing with countries other than Ukraine, had been altered.

Info source – The Washington Post

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