The big news on Tuesday, published first by the Washington Post, was that the U.S. knew months in advance last year that Ukraine was planning on blowing up the Nord Stream Pipeline that supplied natural gas from Russia to Germany. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is blockbuster news on several levels.
One, the U.S. isn’t always able to learn about top-secret operations like the strike on Nord Stream in advance, even when the action is to be taken by an ally.
Two, any intelligence involving a war being waged by an ally against an enemy nation is, to put it mildly, exceedingly sensitive, especially when the action taken involves ultra-secret clandestine operations by specialized teams of commandos.
Three, the intelligence about the strike on Nord Stream involved two of our most important allies – Germany, our key ally in running NATO, and Ukraine, the nation that was (and still is) under attack by Russia that is being supported by a coalition including NATO and European Union countries, as well as the United States.
Four, information about a potential strike on Nord Stream would not only influence military decision-making, but would also influence economic decisions across Europe, because with winter approaching, a secure supply of natural gas would be key to the entire European economy.
Nord Stream Two, the second pipeline from Russia to Germany, was already a contentious issue between the U.S. and Germany. According to the Post, the Biden Administration had pressured Germany for months not to authorize the opening of Nord Stream Two because of worsening relations with Russia. Germany finally agreed to order a halt to use of Nord Stream Two just days before Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022. Even still, according to the Post, the pipeline had already been readied for operation and was filled with some cubic meters of natural gas in contemplation of opening the line.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, paranoia about both Nord Stream pipelines ruled. It was thought by some intelligence agencies in Europe that Russia would sabotage one or both pipelines as a move to warn European nations away from supporting Ukraine with weapons, supplies and money. Others saw the pipelines as a target for Ukraine to hurt Russia economically. The economic pain hit Russia anyway, as one nation after another, beginning with the U.S. and Great Britain, imposed economic sanctions on Russia for its attack on Ukraine. By the summer of last year, the Group of Seven nations announced a price cap on Russian oil, and in retaliation, Russia shut down the one pipeline that was in operation, Nord Stream One.
When the pipelines were bombed in September of last year, fingers got pointed everywhere. Biden denounced the bombing as “an act of sabotage” by Russia in an attempt to “blackmail” European nations into withdrawing their support for Ukraine. European nations saw Ukraine as behind the bombing, but “resisted publicly saying so over fears that blaming Kyiv could fracture the alliance against Russia,” according to the Post. Investigations were begun, leading to more finger pointing.
Some information is just too dangerous to be allowed on servers where 21-year-olds at little naval air stations can get their hands on it by grabbing a mouse and clicking it
With the brouhaha the Nord Stream bombing caused, how the hell did the secret leak out that the U.S. had known since June of last year that Ukraine had plans to bomb the pipeline? The intelligence included “highly specific details, which include numbers of operatives and methods of attack,” according to the Post. The intelligence was said to come from “a European country” which had gotten the information from “an individual in Ukraine.”
You want to talk about sources and methods, the solid gold that supports the accuracy of any intelligence? There it is. This was one of the biggest secrets the U.S. had – hell, that anyone had – because it involved not only nations that were and are allies of the U.S., but its enemy, Russia, as well.
So how did it leak?
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Well, a 20-year-old specialist holding the second lowest enlisted rank in the Air Force came by this top-secret bombshell while serving in the Massachusetts Air National Guard at a base on Cape Cod and published the information on a gamer chat room on the internet site Discord. His name was Jack Teixeira, and he published a lot of other stuff as well on the Discord site, which was populated by teenage gamers and some foreign nationals, who moved some of the secrets onto chat rooms in the Telegram internet channel that is used by the Russian military and intelligence services.
Teixeira published assessments of the likelihood of the success of Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russian forces that is now underway, information that the Russian military must have been delighted to get. He published plans for Ukrainian operations against Russian territory on the anniversary of the Russian invasion, and plans for Ukraine to “strike Russian assets in Syria,” according to the Post. Teixeira also published a U.S. intelligence assessment from the Defense Intelligence Agency predicting that there would be no negotiations to end the war during this year, and for that reason, the war was likely to continue into next year.
But perhaps the most dangerous piece of intelligence the Air National Guard specialist published on his gamer chat room, and from there, to places unknown on the internet, was how deeply the U.S. had penetrated Russian intelligence agencies, enabling the U.S. to warn Ukraine of Russian attacks in advance. The U.S. had also been able to penetrate the leadership and operational control of the Wagner Group, the mercenary group that has fought for over a year to take Bakhmut.
Do you think that coming upon such information lying out there on the internet for anyone to see that Russia might have taken some steps to tighten controls on its own intelligence agencies? Do you think Russia may have arrested some of their people who had been compromised and either put them in jail or killed them? Do you think some of our intelligence agents who ran those people might have been endangered by the leaks?
The kind of operation Ukraine ran against the Nord Stream pipelines was similar in its national importance and its sensitivity to the assault by U.S. Navy Seals to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. So consider this: What if some Specialist Fourth Class somewhere in the bowels of the U.S. intelligence community had been surfing through top-secret files and had come upon plans to either kidnap or kill Bin Laden and had posted those plans where his buddies could see them on a gamer chat room?
In retrospect, it’s a miracle that didn’t happen, because with the end of paper has come the end of secrets.
Nothing is on paper anymore. Battle plans? Digital files. Maps? With everyone carrying around a cell phone capable of displaying GPS-enabled maps and coordinates and detailed satellite imagery of the ground, are you kidding? When a secret like the plans to attack the Nord Stream pipelines are available with the click of a mouse, there are no secrets anymore.
What if some Specialist Fourth Class somewhere in the bowels of the U.S. intelligence community had been surfing through top-secret files and had come upon plans to either kidnap or kill Bin Laden and had posted those plans where his buddies could see them on a gamer chat room?
Everything is out there for the taking. The Jack Teixeira leaks are all the proof you need that it’s not necessary for you to have a very senior security clearance or a so-called “need to know” clearance to access this nation’s most sensitive military and political secrets. Teixeira had an utterly ordinary top-secret security clearance. We have even learned that when he was undergoing his background check for that clearance, he told his gamer friends that he would have to be careful for a while online with his right-wing political comments. But as soon as his top-secret clearance came through, he was out there on the internet posting antisemitic comments and braying about his love for guns and arch-conservative religious doctrine, not to mention spreading this nations secrets freely on the internet.
What is to be done, you may ask? Well, imposing more stringent requirements for security clearances would be a start. But a lot more than that will be needed. Greater controls on who gets access to secrets will be necessary and should have been imposed a long time ago. “Need to know” isn’t just a phrase of intelligence art. It should be a hard and fast rule with more specific boundaries. Right now, the highest level of security is top-secret SCI, or sensitive compartmented information. The “compartmented” in the title is supposed to refer to the limited number of people allowed in the “compartment” who can see the intelligence. But there appear to be few if any additional controls on such documents. Trump walked out of the White House with dozens of TS-SCI documents. Sure, he was the president, but the people who carried them for him in folders or boxes or whatever didn’t have the clearance to see them, and we will never know the identities of all the eyeballs that feasted on those highly sensitive secrets.
But it’s the electronic element in the whole secrets business that is the loosest and hardest to control. Secrets get put into digital files, and the files go into secret locations, and those secret locations are supposed to be behind intelligence firewalls, and so forth and so on. But when a National Guard airman – not even an active duty soldier, sailor, or airman, but a part-timer – can just walk up to a computer station at his workplace and surf the internet of secrets at will, you know we’ve got a real big problem.
The end of secrets needs to end.
Some information is just too dangerous to be allowed on servers where 21-year-olds at little naval air stations can get their hands on it by grabbing a mouse and clicking it. Until our intelligence community comes up with something better, the U.S., and our allies, too, are vulnerable to attack, not just by our foreign enemies, but by our enemies within.
about the war for Ukraine