The United States is again beset by leaked national security information. This week, U.S. government officials arrested and charged a 21-year-old air national guardsman from Massachusetts for releasing hundreds of documents– largely photographs of printed briefings –on the social media platform known as Discord in early March.
The highly classified documents, some of which were meant for top American military officials, confirm that the United States spies even on its closest allies. In fact, the leaked documents spill some of the United States’ private assessments about some of its closest allies around the world. Despite this massive leak, however, it is unlikely that there will be much fall out with America’s allies.
The Leaked Information is Widespread
While several of the leaked documents not unexpectedly provide assessments on the United States’ adversaries, the major focus is the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine. As the United States is stocking Ukraine with the arms and aid it needs to fend off Russian advances and working to maintain allied unity to punish Russia for its invasion, the leak highlights the United States’ concerns about the longevity and capabilities of Ukraine’s military, noting that Ukraine could fall “well short” of launching a counteroffensive this spring due to troop, ammunition, and equipment challenges. As the Washington Post reported, the information in the leaked document is in stark contrast to the positive, supportive statements the Biden administration has uttered in public.
Another victim of the leaked documents is South Korea, one of the United States’ key allies in Asia. South Korea maintains a policy of not providing weapons to countries at war. However, according to the leaked documents, South Korea considered selling arms to Poland with the understanding that they would be sent to Ukraine, but under considerable pressure from the United States. The pressure Seoul felt to supply weapons created some hard feelings towards its American allies and these exposures come at an especially awkward time as South Korean’s president is scheduled to travel to Washington in the next few weeks.
The documents also give information about another cornerstone of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy, Taiwan. Though not a traditional ally, the leaked documents offer a rather bleak assessment of Taiwan’s military capability in fending off China in the event of an attack. the leaked information could tip the United States’ hand. The U.S. strategic ambiguity policy toward Taiwan is intended to keep both Taiwan and China guessing what the United States will do should China invade the island democracy. If American doubts of Taiwan’s ability to defend itself is out in the open, it could encourage China to invade sooner than later.
Israel, arguably America’s closest ally in the Middle East, is also implicated in the leak. A Pentagon assessment suggests that the leadership of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, encouraged Israeli citizens to participate in anti-government protests that erupted in March. The documents expose Israel’s reluctance to providing arms to Ukraine in favor of its relationship with Russia as well. Israel, despite receiving $3 billion in aid per year from its American partners, decided against providing arms to Ukraine for fear of upsetting Russia as the Israelis need Russian support in fighting Iran-backed militants in Syria. U.S. relations with Israel are already in a downturn as Israel’s status as a democracy into question, and any distance between the United States and Israel could be exploited by common adversaries.
Another traditional Middle East partner shows up in the document leak. Despite denying the veracity of the report, the documents state that Egypt considered supplying Russia with 40,000 rockets that could “in theory be used to attack Ukraine.” Egypt, who is the second largest recipient of American aid after Israel, has maintained a balanced approach through the war in Ukraine. With close ties dating back to the Cold War, the large Arab nation is not keen to damaging its relationship with Russia, despite its close ties with the United States. However, if Egypt provided Russia with arms, this would have been a massive betrayal in the eyes of Washington.
NATO allies are not immune to spilled secrets. This is especially true for the United Kingdom, with whom the United States maintains a special relationship. In September, according to U.K. reports, a Russian fighter jet “released” a missile “in the vicinity” of a British surveillance plane over the Black Sea. While it was a close call, the United Kingdom played it off as a non-issue. However, the leaked indicates that the United Kingdom may have downplayed the severity of the situation, including the contradiction of what Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told British lawmakers a month later, calling the incident a “near shoot-down.”
Canada, arguably the United States’ most important ally based on shared history and values, security, and geography, was not spared. In fact, the most recent revelation from the leaked documents is that Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau privately told his NATO allies that Canada would never meet the agreed-upon defense spending target of 2% GDP. Even worse, the documents charge that Canada’s “widespread military deficiencies” are damaging its relations with its allies. Washington has long pushed Ottawa to spend more on its defense. However, as the Washington Post points out, the leaked material “offers new insight into dissatisfaction and concern in the United States and beyond about Canadian defense policy and priorities.”
Turkey is a NATO ally with a checkered history with the alliance and is also connected to the document leak. The documents show that the United States gained access to the Wagner Group, a private Russian contractor engaged in military efforts around the world, who wanted to purchase arms from Turkey to augment its activities in Mali and Ukraine. “The revelation that a NATO ally may have been assisting Russia in its war on Ukraine could prove explosive, particularly as Turkey has sought to block the addition of Sweden” into the alliance, notes the Washington Post.
The Fall Out
In the wake of the leaked documents, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to temper alarm that the leak would damage ties with its allies. “…To date, based on the conversations I’ve had,” Mr. Blinked noted on his recent trip to Asia, “I have not heard anything that would affect our cooperation with allies and partners.”
Of course, allies are asking the United States for answers and the United States immediately reached out to its allies to smooth over any ruffled feathers. Unfortunately, the United States has an unfortunate history of similar leaks, including from Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor; Chelsea Manning, a junior U.S. army soldier; and Wikileaks. But most allies who engage in intelligence-sharing with the United States have resigned themselves to the fact that data leaks are simply part of the business.
While it is no secret that the United States, like any countries, spies on its allies, the current leaks elicited a much more subdued reaction from U.S. allies compared to a decade ago. At that time, two key allies in Europe reacted strongly. The French president made his displeasure known to the Obama administration, while the German chancellor issued a stronger rebuke, noting that “spying on friends is not acceptable.” In this, another uncomfortable truth arises, further cementing why U.S. allies have very little recourse when sensitive or classified information leaks within the United States: Allies cannot restrict information sharing with the United States.
Despite the massive leak, the United States is in no danger of its allies pulling back on sharing sensitive or classified information. While America’s allies may be annoyed about the inconvenience caused by the information leaked in these documents, recent events are unlikely to affect bilateral cooperation because the America’s allies depend too heavily on the United States.
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