U.S. allies expressed concern about the government’s handling of sensitive material following a massive intelligence leak, but said they can’t afford to restrict information sharing with the United States, with its vast electronic spying capability that exceeds that of any other nation.
Speculation about the source of the images of hundreds of highly classified documents posted in recent months on Discord, an online platform popular with gamers, culminated on Thursday with the arrest of Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard.
The trove of leaked documents, some of them apparently pulled from briefings prepared for the country’s top military leaders, revealed details of military advances by China; granular information about Ukraine’s battlefield vulnerabilities in the war with Russia; and foreign nations’ plans to supply Moscow with arms. They also pointed to the breadth of U.S. surveillance, suggesting penetration of private deliberations by leaders of allied nations and the United Nations.
While President Biden, speaking during a trip to Ireland this week, downplayed the significance of the leaked material, he announced new steps on Friday “to further secure and limit distribution of sensitive information.”
An official from a European nation, who like other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said the incident had “caused some damage as it raises doubts as to how intelligence is protected and handled.” Western officials voiced particular consternation about the U.S. military’s decision to grant an inexperienced, junior service member access to a vast array of high-level intelligence.
But the official noted that his country’s intelligence ties with the United States were too important to abandon, suggesting that periodic leaks are the cost of doing business with an espionage powerhouse like the United States.
“Intel agencies will sort this out,” he said. “I don’t believe anyone could afford really stopping the cooperation.”
At the heart of that seeming contradiction is the United States’ unparalleled system of electronic intelligence collection, which has been built up over decades at the cost of untold billions of dollars. While some allies and partners have remarkable spying capabilities in their regions, particularly when it comes to recruiting agents or spies, no other single nation has the global reach of the National Security Agency (NSA) and its vast signals intelligence (SIGINT) operation.
Another European official put it bluntly: “The United States is and will remain a major intelligence partner, critical for our security.”
Mick Mulroy, a former CIA paramilitary officer who served as a senior Pentagon official during the Trump administration, said the United States benefited from intelligence provided by partners including the Five Eyes nations, an Anglophone grouping which includes Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
Still, “we’re definitely the engine” in those relationships, he said. “That does somewhat insulate us from countries deciding not to cooperate with us, but we should be much better about controlling classified information.”