The United States seems incapable of maintaining the secrecy of its sensitive official documents. The latest in the series of leaks relate to defence documents, among others. The source of the public disclosure of this secret material is, as yet, unknown. Senior US administration officials have committed themselves to finding out the perpetrators of this criminal act but the damage, however temporary, has been done. This is especially because this is not the first time that secret US official documents have emerged in the public domain. The Wikileaks through which in 2010-11 US diplomatic cables over a period stretching from 1966-2010 as well some Afghan and Iraq Wars documents were published in some major newspapers of the world would not faded from the memories of diplomats and political leaders even if they are only sketchily remembered by the general public.
The current batch of leaked documents which appeared in the social media contain Pentagon’s assessments of the Ukraine war. Media reports claim that these documents pertain to middle of February to the middle of March period. Essentially, again according to media reports, they indicate US assessments that the war will witness a prolonged stalemate. The documents also appear to indicate that US intelligence has succeeded in getting into Russian military systems. Most people commonly believe that the target of espionage are adversaries but, in the game of nations, allies, partner countries and neutrals are also not spared. That too, again according to media accounts, has happened in this case. The targeted friendly states are South Korea and Israel. The latter country is offended because its famous/notorious intelligence agency Mossad is accused of “encouraging” protests against the government. Naturally, Israel is denying such Mossad activities but the recent attempt of the Netanyahu government to curb the independence of the judiciary led to widespread protests in which significant sections of Israeli opinion joined hands. Hence, if some, in the shadowy and grey world of the Mossad, felt strongly and took some action it would not be surprising.
The leak of the Pentagon assessments will not make any material difference to the battle field situation in Ukraine though it may lead to a change in some tactics and operations of Russian and Ukrainian armed forces. Similarly, both South Korea and Israel will express their displeasure to US diplomats both publicly and privately but politicians and diplomats know that everyone snoops on everyone. Indeed, that is the operating principle followed by all diplomats and those in the spying business. Thus, if the US documents have revealed that its espionage agencies were able to get through into South Korean and Israeli systems, they will seek to tighten them.
It is important to make a distinction between a country snooping on friends and foes and of allowing, even if inadvertently, records of confidential bilateral meetings of heads of governments or diplomats to come out in the media, as happened in the Wikileaks case. This is because the conduct of diplomacy both in its multilateral and bilateral aspects is based on the maintenance of confidentiality of exchanges both verbal and documentary. If one sides loses confidence in another that diplomatic or political exchanges will not be kept confidential then the smooth flow of diplomacy is greatly impaired.
Besides, if reports sent to Foreign Ministries of its diplomats social conversations during which they pick up information which helps in making assessments and formulating policy are leaked out, as happened in the Wikileaks case of release of US diplomatic cables, then the contacts of the concerned diplomats are compromised. Such conversations are a legitimate exercise of a diplomat’s role and is different from traditional spying but they often yield very significant openings. For many years, after the release of US diplomatic cable traffic by Wikileaks, US diplomats would have no doubt have faced such issues of credibility.
All this does not seem to be the case of the present Pentagon papers leaks. Of course the 1971 release of the Pentagon papers were a different matter. In essence, those papers which were carried in the Washington Post showed that the US administrations had consistently mislead the US people about their actions in the Vietnam War. That was therefore an internal US affair, unconnected with inter-state espionage.
There are two other aspects of the intelligence game which are important to note. The first is that all countries with nuclear weapons, place the greatest importance on the physical security of these weapons, the personnel involved in the nuclear weapons programmes, their deployment and the actual procedures for their use. It has to be borne in mind that these are not war fighting weapons but of deterrence. Till now the only case of nuclear secrets going out unauthorisedly to adversaries occurred in the US in the 1940s and early 1950s when they were given by some scientists to the Soviets. It is also a fact though that equipment for nuclear weapons manufacture have been obtained unauthorisedly from foreign countries by at least one country. And fears have been expressed about the physical security of nuclear weapons of one country.
The other matter is how much decision-makers of different countries accept the intelligence supplied to them and base their policies on them. Sometimes crucial information gathered, at great risk, by intelligence agents or information picked up by diplomats through their contacts is not accepted if it conflicts with established policies and notions of policy makers. In such cases the concerned country often suffers.
There is nothing straightforward in the game of nations but certainly the escape of classified information as in the recent Pentagon case brings no credit to the US system.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.