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Biden faces awkward talks abroad after classified files leak

Joe Biden talks to the press on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One in Washington, D.C., for a trip to Durham, North Carolina. (Oliver Contreras/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

It may prove to be the most serious intelligence leak the U.S. has had in a decade, and behind closed doors, it has set off uncomfortable conversations with the nation’s closest allies.

The trove of classified documents dumped online revealed to the global public just how closely Americans are spying on their friends and foes at a most delicate time. The war in Ukraine is at a turning point. President Joe Biden is seeing the leader of the U.K. this week and then he will host his South Korean counterpart, a key partner in efforts to counter China, at the end of April.

As one foreign official put it, the timing is bad and the lack of public outcry from various capitals should fool no one.

South Korea, a critical partner on semiconductors and electric vehicles, said U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin already has called to talk about the incident, and Australia, which signed up for a multibillion-dollar submarine deal, is seeking further information.

U.S. allies are disconcerted by the biggest breach of US intelligence since former federal contractor Edward Snowden handed out thousands of pages of classified documents to journalists. Rather than air their grievances out in the open, they are hitting the diplomatic back channels — and hitting them hard.

The Justice Department has launched an investigation to root out the leaker of what a Pentagon spokesman called “highly sensitive, classified” information. But the damage has been done, across continents and time zones. Although officials are still assessing the extent of the harm and much of the information may already be known, at least to allied governments, it’s the leak of so much fresh information that is most troubling and embarrassing.

U.S. lawmakers have expressed their concern about the potential fallout, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has requested a classified briefing for all senators.

Bloomberg News hasn’t independently verified the documents, which have been circulating on different forums including Telegram. U.S. officials said Monday that the documents originated in the government, but that some may have been doctored. According to the New York Times, the documents posted online were changed to understate estimates of Russian casualties in Ukraine and overstate those of Ukrainian forces.

When it comes to Ukraine, one of the most eye-catching moments divulged across the internet was how the U.S. has almost real-time information on Russia’s military operations and has private misgivings about Ukraine’s own combat power.

“I’m worried that Russia might take advantage of the vulnerability we have just validated in Ukrainian air defenses and might start bombardments on Ukrainian civilian sites again, in the hopes that they can exhaust Ukrainian air defenses,” said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington research group.

If the U.S. has indeed penetrated much of Russia’s security apparatus, another foreign official raised concern that the insights might enable Moscow to triangulate the sources of U.S. information or methods by which it had been collected.

One official of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance said that while the other member governments — the U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand — won’t publicly chastise the U.S., it would be wrong for Biden’s team to conclude they aren’t upset.

What has been posted paints a narrative that the Biden administration estimates Ukraine could run out of ammunition for its Soviet-era air defenses by May and generally expresses pessimism about Kyiv’s prospects as it prepares an offensive intended to recapture territory taken by Moscow’s forces.

One of the foreign officials said that while US doubts about Ukraine’s capabilities aren’t surprising, their publication reinforces the notion that time is on Russia’s side.

That could undermine support for continuing military assistance to Kyiv both internationally and in the U.S., where a number of Republicans have called for a cutoff.

Another official, though, noted that previous pessimistic Western assessments of Ukraine’s prospects have been wrong.

“It is my great hope that, since we have increased the risk to Ukraine, we are also going to increase the assistance to Ukraine to help them attenuate the risk,” Schake said, adding that the alterations made to the documents suggest they may have “been in the hands of the Russians for a while.”

One of the foreign officials said Washington’s closest allies will be understanding — knowing that such breaches could happen to any of them but will seek assurances that the administration is taking appropriate steps to secure its information.

Another official from a Five Eyes country said they would not criticize the US and were not especially concerned about what had been published, but they wanted to know what had happened and what else might come out.

The U.S. is exploring a series of scenarios, ranging from an American official carelessly taking the documents without intending to publish them and then becoming compromised, to a mole deliberately releasing them, the person said.

Some aspects of the leaks, including details which seem to further Russian talking points and embarrass the U.S. and its allies, point toward the leak being a deliberate act, they added.

A decade ago, when reports emerged that U.S. intelligence had hacked the cell phone of then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel it caused enough tension in that relationship to compel her to come out and say that “spying among friends is never acceptable.”

Perhaps one of the punchiest comments on this leak came from Elon Musk, who owns Twitter and has provided Ukraine with a lifeline with his Starlink internet service while suggesting it cede Crimea.

The billionaire, who has increasingly dabbled in geopolitics, responded to a report that the US was seeking to remove posts of the leaked documents and that such efforts were doomed to fail.

“Yeah, you can totally delete things from the Internet – that works perfectly and doesn’t draw attention to whatever you were trying to hide at all,” he tweeted.


© 2023 Bloomberg L.P

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