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The Intelligence Leak Shows Us Nothing New Or Surprising About Ukraine

The recent Discord leak reveals just how significantly overclassified government documents and intelligence have become.

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As a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer, I was struck by three things about the recent Discord leaks of classified information. First, that top secret information is far more widely distributed than it was 25 years ago, and second, that the claim that “our government is lying to us” about the situation in Ukraine is wildly overblown. And lastly, that we barely dodged a bullet.

As with the accused 21-year-old leaker of military secrets, I too had a top-secret clearance at the age of 21 in 1983. I had the clearance because I was an enlisted intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army Reserve. Without qualifying for the clearance, I wouldn’t be able to continue to work in that military occupational specialty (MOS). Once I graduated from college two years later, I was commissioned as a military intelligence officer.

I maintained my top-secret clearance for 24 years until 2007. During that entire time, there were only three periods when I had access to anything approaching the depth and breadth of the recently leaked information. They occurred during the years when I worked as a Reagan appointee in the Pentagon when I was assigned as a U.S. Southern Command regional analyst in Panama, and during Desert Storm when I was the all-source intelligence chief for the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin.

In each case, the information I was granted access to was restricted to my need to know, and in the first two instances, it consisted entirely of paper that never left highly secure vaults. By the first Gulf War, classified computer systems had evolved enough that I was able to process direct intelligence from the theater of conflict and then strip the sources and methods from the top-secret reports to create a daily secret briefing on the war for the commanders and staff I supported.

The Challenge of Securing Digital Intel

Then two things happened within the span of a decade: The information revolution greatly increased the capacity of computers while reducing their costs; and the terror attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

One of the lessons drawn from the 9/11 terror attack was that members of America’s intelligence community — referred to as the IC — were too siloed; that is, they didn’t share information with each other. As a result, there was an incomplete picture of the threat from al-Qaeda.

But classified information is siloed, or “compartmented,” for a reason: limiting the national security damage that could happen from one source, regardless of motives. And with some 1.2 million people having access to top-secret information, that’s a lot of paths to lose control of documents that would damage national security if they fell into the wrong hands.

Thus, maintaining security for classified information is vastly more difficult today than it was in the age of paper and vaults.

As was seen in the most recent leak, the other aspect to classification is how significantly overclassified things have become. (Is “Confidential” still used as a classification? Because I can’t recall the last time I saw any leak of classified documents marked “Confidential.”) It’s as if the classifying authorities — actual people (and I’ve classified a few documents in my time) — believe they derive some authority or prestige by the volume of top-secret documents they produce. It’s almost as if they’re acting like academics looking to pad their publication count.

The Leaked Info Is Overblown

On to the claim that the leaked documents show our government isn’t leveling with the American people about the progress of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

One revelation emerging from the documents is that Ukraine is running low on air defense systems and artillery ammunition. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has himself said on many occasions that Ukraine desperately needs as much. The classified leak merely validates Zelensky’s requests.

No less a critic of America’s role in supporting Ukraine than retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, his April 16 column at Fox News provocatively titled, in part, “Pentagon leaks reveal Biden’s Ukraine war lies…” delivers far less than promised.

Scouring the piece for the “lies,” I found the piece full of sound and fury, but identifying no lies. Maginnis cites pre-war lies by five U.S. presidents ranging from James K. Polk before the Mexican-American War to George W. Bush before the invasion of Iraq. But then Maginnis uses a defensive rhetorical device to cast doubt.

“It could be President Biden is lying about our role in the Ukraine war much as past presidents lied. Certainly, some of the leaked intelligence suggests the war in Ukraine isn’t going as swimmingly as Biden and his administration have suggested,” he writes, then later asks, “Is President Biden lying to the American people and if so, why?”

But Maginnis never ventures an answer. Perhaps this is prudent coming from a man who frequently predicted Ukraine’s imminent collapse and Russia’s inevitable victory from the start of the invasion.

That said, Maginnis does ask a couple of pertinent questions — namely, “Is the Biden administration purposely draining our weapons arsenals to favor the Chinese? Can Ukraine really win the war against giant Russia?”

The fact is that the U.S. and its Western allies are woefully unprepared for an extended conventional conflict. So too is Russia, as seen with its own significant shortages of artillery ammunition, missiles, and tanks. This problem isn’t new. Maintaining military-industrial base readiness was a costly investment few were willing to make after the end of the Cold War. American production of missiles such as the Javelin anti-armor system are only now being ramped up to a rate where it will take a couple of years to replenish stocks used in Ukraine so far.

It’s also true that some of the military supplies America is sending to Ukraine would be useful in deterring China from threatening Taiwan or its other neighbors, but some analysts see China and Russia as creating an authoritarian alliance of convenience against the West. If this is the case, Ukraine — and maybe Taiwan — are separate parts of what may become the same conflict.

As for whether Ukraine can win the war launched upon it by Russia, it’s important to understand that war is a conflict of wills. Russia may have a larger population and economy, but Russia, unlike Ukraine, is surrounded by threatening neighbors and beset by internal unrest. With a rapidly collapsing population, most conscripted Russians must be enlisted into the internal security establishment or serve as border guards or troops facing other nations, leaving a fraction of the fight in Ukraine. And judging by their spotty performance and poor morale, the Russian forces in Ukraine appear to be hapless souls who lacked the means to escape an uneven and corrupt conscription.

The ground in Ukraine is slowly drying out, marking the end of the “rasputitsa,” or mud season. With it may come the long-heralded Ukrainian counteroffensive, borne aloft by providing the Ukrainian armed forces with the hand-me-down tanks and armored vehicles produced by the West to confront the Soviet Union — equipment that was designed to defeat Russian tanks in the first place.

A Ukrainian victory in this next campaign may set the conditions for peace negotiations — a possibility not at all excluded by the trove of documents leaked by a low-ranking Air National Guard servicemember — documents that, if more recent or of a different nature, might have had a significant negative effect on Ukraine’s pending operations. As such, the leak itself represents another opportunity to get serious about protecting information that truly deserves to be highly classified.  


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