US intel leak rattles friend and foe alike

Briefly: US officials are rushing to contain damage caused by the online appearance of a tranche of highly classified documents.

The files – which cover the Russo-Ukraine war plus events in Korea, Israel and beyond – first appeared weeks ago via Discord, an online messaging platform popular with gamers. But the leak within an obscure corner of the internet drew little attention until The New York Times reported the story on Friday.

There are several theories on who leaked the material and why, including:

  • An aggrieved US official seeking to damage US interests
  • A mole or hack within the US system
  • A US disinformation campaign (a theory favoured by Russian bloggers)
  • A US official showing off among fellow gamers, or
  • A member of the public finding and uploading lost classified material

The latter two theories might seem odd, but they’re entirely plausible. Western officials have recently leaked sensitive info via gaming platforms just to win an argument or two. And they’ve occasionally left classified material on a trainin a briefcase or even in a filing cabinet for sale at a thrift shop.

Intrigue’s take: This latest leak is significant in several ways. First, it reveals the existence of an advanced US satellite system known as ‘LAPIS’. When a new intel capability like this is revealed, adversaries have a better shot at thwarting it.

Second, the leak confirms publicly what’s long been known privately: that the US keeps a close eye on its allies. This risks undermining local support for US alliances around the world. And third, the leak will cause a clamming up of Western intelligence, as US agencies and allies limit what they’re willing to share.

So, regardless of who’s behind the leak, it seems to achieve the aims of US adversaries: sowing doubt, discord and suspicion across the US and its allies.

Also worth noting:

  • The leaked intel discloses Russian attempts to secure munitions from US allies like Turkey and Egypt, and catalogues Ukraine’s vulnerabilities.
  • This leak seems to involve dozens or hundreds of classified files. A decade ago, Edward Snowden’s mass leak involved him downloading 1.7 million files.
  • The US isn’t the only one angry with Discord. Nintendo is now taking legal action against it after details of the next Zelda game were leaked.
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