The Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into a recent leak of highly classified Pentagon intelligence documents revealing secrets about the war in Ukraine, as well as details about the U.S. spying on a number of its adversaries, as well as its allies, including Israel and South Korea. We discuss the documents, the agencies they come from, how and where they were released, and more with investigative journalist James Bamford, whose latest book is Spyfail: Foreign Spies, Moles, Saboteurs, and the Collapse of America’s Counterintelligence.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
The Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into a recent leak of highly classified Pentagon intelligence documents about the war in Ukraine, as well as Russian and U.S. spying, on not only U.S. spying on its adversaries, but spying on its allies, like Israel, like South Korea, like Ukraine. Over the past month or more, the leaked documents have been appearing online on the chat service Discord and on the messaging app Telegram. Many appear to be photographs of slides prepared for a briefing. It appears the Pentagon wasn’t aware of the leak until last week. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby spoke Monday.
JOHN KIRBY: We don’t know who’s responsible for this, and we don’t know if they have more that they intend to post. So we’re watching this and monitoring it as best we can. But the truth and the honest answer to your question is we don’t know. And is that a matter of concern to us? You’re darn right it is.
AMY GOODMAN: While the documents appear to be real, U.S. officials say some have been doctored. Concerning the war in Ukraine, the leaked documents suggest Ukraine has little chance of militarily defeating Russia. One document from February predicted that Ukraine’s, quote, “ability to provide medium-range air defense to protect the [front lines] will be completely reduced by May 23.” The leaked documents also predicted the fighting between Ukraine and Russia in the Donbas region, quote, “is likely heading toward a stalemate.” Another document indicates members of Ukraine’s Security Services were responsible for sabotaging a Russian plane inside Belarus in late February.
The documents also appear to indicate U.S. intelligence agencies had deeply penetrated the Russian military, giving the Biden administration internal information about Russian war plans in Ukraine, as well as operational plans for the private mercenary group Wagner in Africa. The Washington Post reports one leaked document reveals the Wagner Group sought to purchase arms from Turkey, a NATO ally. Documents also show that Egypt, a close U.S. ally, secretly planned to produce 40,000 rockets for Russia.
The leak of the documents has also revealed how the United States spied on its own allies. One leaked Pentagon memo alleges that the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, had encouraged Israelis to take part in the massive protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to gut the Israeli judiciary.
Many of the documents are based on information gathered by some of the most secret wings of the U.S. intelligence community, including the National Reconnaissance Office, the NRO; National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research; the Pentagon’s DIA, Defense Intelligence Agency; and the National Security Agency, the NSA.
We go now to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by James Bamford, longtime investigative journalist and author focused on the intelligence community. In 1982, he published The Puzzle Palace, the first book exposing the inner workings of the NSA, the National Security Agency. His latest book, just out, is called Spyfail: Foreign Spies, Moles, Saboteurs, and the Collapse of America’s Counterintelligence.
Jim, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us again. Why don’t you just —
JAMES BAMFORD: Yeah, thanks, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: — start off by, as you evaluate what has been released, this intelligence, if it’s real — and by all accounts, it looks real — of the U.S. spying on adversaries and allies? Talk about what’s most significant and where these documents are from.
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, in terms of significance, I think the most significant outcome of this is a danger that we may lose actual human beings in Russia, because a lot of the documents indicate that we have collected information from the inner workings of the Russian government, the intelligence services and the military. So, there are people that may be giving us information, and now that these documents have come out, it gives the Russians an opportunity to do a mole hunt, to hunt for people who are giving that information away. As a matter of fact, officials told The New York Times and The Washington Post that the revelations might lead Russian mole hunters to the doorsteps of American spies in their ranks. And that’s the problem. The problem is that when these type of documents leak, especially during a period of war, there’s dire consequences that can happen to the people who are helping the U.S. by giving them information.
AMY GOODMAN: And again, talk about these agencies that people may not be aware of. You are the expert on the NSA, many times larger than the CIA, the National Security Agency. But then you have the National Reconnaissance Office. You have the Defense Intelligence Agency. So, who is getting a hold of these? And also talk about the platforms that they’re being released on. Discord is what? For gamers? And then talk about Telegram.
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, in terms of the agencies, there’s a potpourri of documents that give extremely detailed information about all these agencies. The NSA, for example, eavesdrops around the world. The documents that were picked up or the documents that were released dealing with Mossad and Israel, that came from eavesdropping, from NSA eavesdropping on the communications of Mossad. So, then you have the National Reconnaissance Office. They’re in charge of putting spy satellites in orbit. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyzes the imagery. Again, that information also came out in these documents, because there’s documents that show how we were able to collect information by satellite. So, there’s a wealth of what they call sources and methods, both human and technical, that were released by the documents.
Now, strangely, mostly documents that are leaked appear in major news organizations, The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, whatever. They never appear on gaming platforms, so this is a first for that.
It’s hard to say why any of this stuff is appearing or why it’s appearing on those platforms. Usually, there’s three reasons for spying. That was one of the reasons I wrote Spyfail, because there are so many spies out there that the U.S. never ends up catching. And there’s three main reasons. One is money, obviously. Most spies want to sell secrets for money. Another is ideological. They want to help a foreign government. They don’t care much about money. And the third reason is basically the thrill or else a anger. So, that could be the reason that these documents were released, the third reason, anger. Somebody was angry, and they decided that they were just going to put these documents on whatever platform they happened to be using. So it’s very hard to know.
The key point is that the government keeps losing documents. A few years ago, just a few years ago, the NSA lost upwards of half a billion documents, employees just walking out the door with these documents. They lost three-quarters of cyberweapons, the United States cyberweapons. The NSA lost three-quarters of that. Somebody stole them and put them up on auction. The North Koreans ended up getting the cyberweapons, and so did the Russians, and they turned them on the United States. So, there is a complete lack of accountability when it comes to classified information, top-secret documents, and so forth. It just walks out the door, and nobody ever gets fired.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, James Bamford, we’re going to continue this discussion with Part 2 after this show ends, and we’re going to post it at democracynow.org, to talk about the most significant revelations in this, from the war in Ukraine to what’s happening in Israel, to Egypt possibly secretly wanting to produce rockets for Russia — a U.S. ally, Egypt, as is Israel. James Bamford, longtime investigative journalist and author. His most recent book is titled Spyfail: Foreign Spies, Moles, Saboteurs, and the Collapse of America’s Counterintelligence.
By the way, a happy belated birthday to David Prude! Stay tuned to Part 2 at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.
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