Robert M. Dover, Professor of Intelligence and National Security in the School of Criminology, Sociology and Policing at the University of Hull, writes that the recent leaked Pentagon reports are interesting for what they don’t reveal.
The world’s media was predictably alive last weekend with speculation about Jack Teixeira, the young US guardsman who was charged in a case involving leaked confidential US defence and intelligence documents. The actual charge levelled against the 21-year-old Airman First Class is the “unauthorised retention and transmission of national defence information, and unauthorised removal and retention of classified documents”, for which he could receive 15 years in prison if found guilty on all counts.
What many people wanted to know is how such a young and relatively junior officer had access to such an array of secrets. And how US intelligence security could have allowed him to allegedly share this classified material on a Discord server normally used to discuss video games.
The affair suggests that US intelligence agencies are still as vulnerable to this kind of leak as it was at the time of Chelsea Manning in 2010. Manning, an army intelligence analyst was released from a US military prison in 2017 having served only a short portion of a 35-year sentence for leaking classified – Iraq war – intelligence material to Wikileaks.
This is important because for Ukraine some of the intelligence that Kyiv is sharing is very sensitive, providing updates about the country’s capabilities. This intelligence showed how the Ukrainian government views the status of the war, including the conflict raging near Bakhmut. Ukraine will be rightly dismayed, but they are heavily reliant on the US for much of their sophisticated military capability and so cannot restrict intelligence flows.
For the UK, most attention focused on the confirmation in the leaked documents that British special forces are operating in Ukraine. This will be used by Moscow to bolster the narrative that Russia is being encircled by Nato.
Russia’s large intelligence community is skilled in both electronic interception, and human intelligence through its undercover officers and informant handling. So it is unlikely that Moscow learned much new. It had made its own assessments, but these have now been confirmed through the words of its adversaries.
The leaked reports are interesting for what they don’t reveal. Russian analysts can check where the US and Ukraine do not have good coverage. More importantly, the intelligence trove will show how US, Ukraine and other countries’ analysts are assessing the progress of the war. The details are secondary to understanding how the allies are thinking.
Before his arrest, Teixeira worked in the intelligence wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, meaning he had held top security clearance since 2021. He also allegedly ran a Discord server, a messaging platform, where the classified documents were leaked. Early reporting suggested he had taken the platform’s members into his trust by asking them not to repost the documents.
But to ask how someone so young had access to secrets is to ask the wrong questions. It is perfectly reasonable for someone of his age to be security cleared and have access to classified material, but only if they need to know the information. But it is not immediately clear why the Massachusetts Air National Guard needs top-secret intelligence about Ukraine.
More baffling is why there were not greater controls in place. It suggests that top-secret documents can be printed without requiring additional permission. It suggests that documents are not given unique codes tying them to an individual accessing or moving them. It also suggests that they do not need to be viewed in a secure room, and are capable of being extracted from the system without there being some kind of trip alarm.
That Teixeira was apparently running a Discord server should have been disclosed as part of his security vetting, raising a standard alert to counterintelligence to keep an eye on the activities there.
Notably, the leak has come from the armed forces – rather than the CIA or NSA. This suggests, as was the case with Manning, that the armed forces are the weak link in US intelligence.
Allowing intelligence to move around the US system is still a response to 9/11. The siloing of intelligence is part of how the plotters managed to evade the US authorities. Separate pieces of intelligence that did not raise sufficient alarm were held by individual agencies. They were not stitched together in 2001 in time to reveal the whole plot. Siloed information was judged to be a weakness of the US intelligence system, and resulted in more openness.
For the UK, the confirmation that special forces are operating in Ukraine is potentially awkward. This is a high-risk strategy for the UK. Limited special forces activities to extract individuals or perform limited tasks, such as destroying a particular Russian capability on a “get in and get out” basis, has some logic to it. A continuous deployment “in support of Ukraine” is to flirt with the prospect of a Russian public relations coup if UK personnel are killed or captured by Russian forces.
Reports have focused on the “revelation” that the US might be spying on its allies, and the United Nations. This should surprise nobody. All intelligence-capable countries conduct intelligence activities against both enemies and allies. Against their allies, these activities are not so aggressive, but it is as important to understand an ally’s position as an adversary’s.
Suggesting that the US has gone rogue in its intelligence gathering is to misunderstand a key purpose of intelligence which is to provide decision support to policymakers. But it remains important not to lose intelligence: that is the unforgivable sin in intelligence circles.
This article by Professor Robert Dover was originally published on The Conversation. The views or opinions expressed by individuals do not necessarily reflect those of the University.