In The 'Wilderness Of Mirrors,' Who Leaked (And Changed) Ukraine Intelligence?
Please consider becoming a paid subscriber. This column is the way I make my living.
The old saying “confusion reigns” is appropriate to describe the mood in Washington D.C. on the fifth day after top-secret Pentagon documents began appearing on social media sites like Twitter, Telegram, and 4chan last week. Nobody knows who the leaker is, and there are only hints as to what the purpose of the leaks might be.
Usually leaks of sensitive information have an agenda: the leaker wants to expose programs or information which the leaker opposes or believes to be illegal. Edward Snowden’s disclosure of highly classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) was such a leak. Sometimes the leak has to do with a grudge – a national political leader wants to embarrass a nation with which he or she is at odds. Sometimes leaks are purely political, as were the leaks by Russian intelligence of emails from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta in order to help the campaign of a politician Russia considered friendly, Donald Trump.
Sometimes secrets are leaked for unknown reasons by persons unknown, which appears to be the case with the Pentagon secrets that started showing up on social media last week. There are indications, some of them not so subtle, that the recent leaks were connected to or at least inspired by Russian intelligence. Some of the leaked documents are so-called slides that had been used to brief members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Others appear to be pages from briefing books that were seen by the Joint Chiefs. According to the New York Times, some of the documents appear to have come from the CIA’s operations center.
The U.S. gathers intelligence in a number of ways. The NSA picks up what they call “signals” intelligence from satellites, radio communications, cellphones, even scrambled conversations on wired telephone lines, which they de-scramble and interpret. The CIA gathers so-called human intelligence from agents on the ground and from open sources like news reports. One of the CIA’s main purposes is to analyze the material it has gathered, as well as help to understand information coming from the NSA and military intelligence sources. The Pentagon gathers its own intelligence using the Defense Intelligence Agency. The Office of National Intelligence, established after 9/11showed that communications among the various intelligence agencies was severely lacking, is supposed to oversee the whole web of data and intelligence gathering.
A number of the leaked documents were altered to show reduced Russian casualty figures in the war in Ukraine, while the Ukrainian casualties were higher than the figures originally on the documents. Who altered the documents is unknown, as is the motive. The fact that the figures favor Russia would appear to be a rather large clue until you consider that there could be ulterior motives behind the altered figures.
It could be one of those intelligence “wilderness of mirrors” mysteries. If the Russians penetrated U.S. intelligence and somehow got hold of the documents, they could have altered the casualty figures for propaganda purposes to show they were doing better in the war than the media has reported. The Russians may hope that because the documents come from an intelligence leak, they might be taken more seriously than official casualty figures released or leaked from the Pentagon.
Or the leaker may have altered the casualty figures to point the finger at Russia and away from him or her. The Times reported today that the leaked documents “look like hastily taken photographs of pieces of paper sitting atop what appears to be a hunting magazine. Former officials who have reviewed the material say it appears that a classified briefing was folded up, placed in a pocket and then taken out of a secure area to be photographed.” If the leak came from a person who works in the Pentagon and who has access to the papers circulating around the “E-Ring” where offices of top officials such as the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are, the leaker would certainly want to conceal his or her identity by the use of misdirection like the altered casualty figures.
The leaked information “includes sensitive briefing material on Canada, China, Israel and South Korea, in addition to the Indo-Pacific military theater and the Middle East,” which could be another way of pointing fingers away from the real purpose of the leaks, which appears to be influencing the war in Ukraine, according to experts interviewed by the Times.
Some of the documents show resupply data for the Ukrainian military, including amounts of ammunition, the shipment of new war materiel such as tanks and armored personnel carriers, and the schedules showing estimated arrival times in Ukraine. Other documents reveal that the Ukrainian military is running low on missiles for its air defense system. “Without a huge influx of munitions, Ukraine’s entire air defense network, weakened by repeated barrages from Russian drones and missiles, could fracture, according to U.S. officials and newly leaked Pentagon documents,” the Times reported this morning.
If the documents are accurate, and Ukraine’s air defenses have been seriously weakened, that would open to door to Russia making more use of its air force to attack Ukrainian artillery batteries. At this point, the battle fought along the 600-mile front lines of the conflict is an artillery war. With reports that Ukraine is already rationing artillery shells in its battle for Bakhmut, if Russia could strike directly at Ukrainian artillery batteries with its jets, that would be a serious blow to Ukraine’s war effort.
There were big reports in the Times and Washington Post about how the documents reveal the extent to which U.S. intelligence has penetrated the Russian military and intelligence services with so-called signals intelligence – that is, vacuuming up Russian communications on the battlefield, including those from the battlefield back to command and control centers in Moscow. In fact, both papers have reported that the leaked documents show the U.S. knows more about Russia’s strengths and weaknesses than it does about Ukraine’s.
Or maybe in the wilderness of mirrors from which the leaked documents emerged, it’s the other way around. If at least some of the top-secret documents were leaked intentionally by the U.S., that might be misdirection, intended to make the Russian military and intelligence services believe the U.S. has more information than it really does.
The truth could be somewhere in between. We may never know the truth of who leaked the documents and why, which is much more likely, and that may be part of the intention of the leaks to begin with.
Some reports say the leaked documents may sow discord among NATO allies by revealing the extent the U.S. spies on its friends. That seems unlikely to me, because Great Britain, France, Germany, and other allies have known for decades that the U.S. hoovers up intelligence from its allies and enemies alike with the massive capabilities of the National Security Agency. So when analysis of the leaked documents tends to show discord among NATO allies engaged in supplying Ukraine, that could be even more misdirection, meant to conceal the fact that there is no discord whatsoever, and everything with NATO and the Ukraine war effort is on track, well-coordinated, and working just fine.
The leak of one document dated March 1 about the training of Ukrainian units by NATO troops when General Mark Milley was in Germany to observe combined arms training of a Ukrainian battalion, would seem to be more of such misdirection. The leak may be pointing the finger at that specific Ukrainian battalion being observed quite publicly by Milley – there were stories and even photographs in the press at the time – in order to conceal the training of even more Ukrainian battalions elsewhere, such as Poland or Lithuania or even Finland, which had not yet finalized its membership in NATO but could have already been cooperating as a U.S. and NATO ally-in-waiting.
That the leaked documents raise more questions than they answer could be the real intent of the leaks. Keeping the Russians guessing about U.S. intelligence abilities is one of the main aims of the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA. The same goes for the leaked documents which appear to show that Ukraine is low on missiles for its air-defense system. That could be a complete lie, intended to lure Russia into using its air force jets so the Ukrainians can shoot them out of the sky with air defenses that were never weak to begin with.
Sometimes intelligence agencies will penetrate an enemy’s intelligence and leak secrets just to see what the enemy will do about it. Documents recently leaked on social media sites like Twitter, Telegram, and 4chan appear to show that the U.S. has penetrated Russian intelligence and security agencies far deeper than previously known. According to the Times, the documents show that “American intelligence has been able to obtain daily real-time warnings on the timing of Moscow’s strikes and even its specific targets.”
See what I mean about misdirection, confusion, and secrets? That’s the nature of the war-making beast. Keep the enemy off guard. Fill the enemy’s ears and eyes with lies. Having the lies come from leaks could be another way of ensuring that Russia takes disinformation more seriously than they would if the information came from elsewhere. The Pentagon and the CIA know that Russia’s satellite intelligence, both photographic and signals intelligence, is weak. The point is, Russia doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. Confusion is good, because it gives the U.S. and NATO the opportunity to turn the wilderness of mirrors into a carnival funhouse with the leaked documents as free tickets for the ride.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV..
Please consider subscribing to Lucian Truscott Newsletter, from which this is reprinted with permission.