Apr 12, 2023

A major intelligence leak.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin is facing a major intelligence leak. Image: Secretary of Defense office
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin is facing a major intelligence leak. Image: Secretary of Defense office

Plus, a question about Matt Taibbi.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

Today, we are covering a major intelligence leak and what it means for the war in Ukraine. Plus, a question about Matt Taibbi, Elon Musk, and the latest from Twitter files.

A note for a friend.

Today, instead of an advertiser or promo, I want to give a shoutout to my friend Grant Lindsley, who just released a new book called "Mediocre Monk." I've seen Grant pour himself into this memoir, and I was thrilled to get a pre-release version to read (and review). Here is the review I wrote, which appears inside, and a link to go buy it:

Mediocre Monk is a brutally honest and self-aware telling of a story familiar to us all: the shock of an unexpected death, a search for meaning in its wake, and the wanting for validation from your peers. Lindsley knows who he is and his memoir knows what it should be. It’s a fascinating look behind the curtain of Buddhism in far off places many of us will never traverse, viewed with the critical eye of a millennial Westerner. But it’s also a funny, self-deprecating mockery of who Lindsley thought he was as a young man, and an honest reckoning of what you can learn from months in solitary meditation. Go buy it here.

Quick hits.

  1. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg sued Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) alleging that he is interfering in the investigation into Donald Trump. Bragg is seeking to block a congressional subpoena of a former prosecutor in his office. (The lawsuit)
  2. The Consumer Price Index rose 5% in March from a year ago, down from 6% in February. On a monthly basis, inflation rose 0.1%. (The numbers)
  3. Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) announced she has Parkinson's disease. (The announcement)
  4. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reversed his decision to fire his defense minister Yoav Gallant, who was removed after objecting to Netanyahu's judicial reforms. (The reversal)
  5. President Biden landed last night in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the good Friday Agreement. (The trip)

Today's topic.

The intelligence leak. Last month, a trove of about 100 pages of classified documents began appearing on Discord, an app for group discussions. But in recent weeks, the same documents spread across Twitter, 4chan, and Telegram, raising awareness about their contents and what U.S. officials have now described as a "massive" and consequential intelligence leak.

The documents, which appeared to have been hastily photographed, included Pentagon reports that illustrate a far-reaching U.S. spying operation inside Russia and Ukraine. Some of the documents show daily, real-time warnings to American intelligence agencies on the timing of Moscow's strikes in Ukraine. Others contain updates on the beleaguered Russian military, and reveal a Ukrainian army that is running lower on munitions than was previously reported.

Notably, the documents report on Russian and Ukrainian casualties in the war. Though the estimates are made with "low confidence," they broadly align with what has been reported in the press. One document reports the Russians have suffered 189,500 to 223,000 casualties, with 43,000 soldiers killed in action, while Ukraine has suffered 124,500 to 131,000 casualties, with up to 17,500 killed in action.

The source of the leaks remains unknown. However, U.S. officials fear that if the documents reveal sources and methods, it creates an opportunity for Russia to cut off critical sources of information. The National Security Agency, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency appear to have contributed to the documents.

Leaks of this kind can also damage U.S. relations with allies. Included in the documents was evidence of the U.S. intercepting South Korean communications revealing that officials there were worried about providing military aid to Ukraine. A CIA assessment also reports on deliberations of senior officials from Mossad, Israel's foreign spy agency, on whether to protest judicial reforms in the country (the military leaders seemed supportive of protests against Netanyahu). There was also a document that detailed a scheme involving Egypt, one of our closest allies, supporting Russia with armaments.

The FBI has launched an investigation into the leaks. Preliminary reports suggest the documents are accessible by hundreds or potentially thousands of U.S. officials with high-ranking security clearances, and the Pentagon has responded by locking down the distribution of sensitive briefing documents.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions to the leak from the left and right. Then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left worry about the leak's impact on Ukraine and hope the Biden administration gets to the bottom of it quickly.
  • Some say the leak paints a frightening picture of the war.
  • Others say it is a boon for Russian propaganda.

In The Washington Post, David Ignatius called the leaks "chilling."

"Were these documents disclosed by the Russians to expose Ukrainian weakness and shatter morale, as seems most likely to the analysts I contacted? Or were they actually disseminated by Ukraine, as some Russian bloggers appear to believe, in a plot to make the Kremlin think that Ukraine is weak and thereby disguise its true strengths in advance of a planned spring counteroffensive?" he asked. "Or, perhaps, were they leaked by a disgruntled American with a hidden motive?"

What matters is that you "know what's accurate and what is a manipulated reflection." Some basic themes are that "Ukraine is facing a severe shortage of air defense weapons that could cost it the war," that "the West's 'arsenal of democracy' isn't close to matching Ukraine's needs," and that there were "desperate efforts" to persuade South Korea and Israel to "sell lethal weapons" to Ukraine. It's also clear the U.S. "has been more risk averse than some allies," including Britain and France, who sent "crewed electronic warfare planes" over the Black Sea.

In Vox, Jonathan Guyer said if the documents are authentic, they "represent a major intelligence breach."

It's still "not at all clear" who the source is, but "the timing might imply someone who is trying to shape the US and NATO response to an imminent Ukrainian counteroffensive." That "could be meant to box in the Western response to push for unmitigated support, or to embarrass the US, or to show the depth of US assistance to Ukraine on the ground." Either way, it's "likely to be favorable to Russian President Vladimir Putin in at least two regards: netting a propaganda win and showing valuable insights into how US agencies work."

While some have argued its origin is Russian intelligence, "it's not clear why they would want to blow up such a goldmine of a source and publicize inside information." Moving forward, you can expect the Biden administration "to ensure the leak is plugged," which probably means a “tightening of access" or even a "blanket shutdown of certain intelligence sharing, perhaps to the detriment of U.S. policymaking."

The Washington Post editorial board said the most damaging part of the leak is that there was a leak at all.

"Granted, the material may have provided the Kremlin with some useful details. But there is little in the document dump that is likely to be a game changer in the war itself," the board said. Maybe it's helpful to know "estimates of the amounts of arms and munitions" Ukraine has, but it is "likely to be more valuable for Moscow to discover the range of U.S. intelligence capabilities that enabled the collection of such information, and to garner hints about how Washington gathered it in the first place."

Russia is "already aware" of low munitions and the need for air support, because Ukraine has been "publicly beseeching the West" to deliver both. "In the Ukraine fight, Putin might plausibly regard his most potent weapon to be the conflict’s most open secret — that the longer the battles drag on, the more pressure will build on Ukraine’s allies to sue for peace, on any terms," they wrote. "No leaks are likely to change that calculus."

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right criticize the Biden administration for the leaks, saying they tell a different story in Ukraine.
  • Some emphasize that the leak is a bad sign for U.S. intelligence.
  • Others criticize how the leaks are being condemned, when similar leaks under Trump were viewed as patriotic.

In National Review, Jim Geraghty said the secret documents warn Ukraine's counteroffensive "will likely stall."

"President Biden’s rhetoric regarding Ukrainian resistance to the invasion increasingly appears to be wildly overoptimistic happy talk, designed to assure Americans that he’s managing the NATO coalition just fine, the military aid to Kyiv is arriving in a timely fashion, and Russia really is diplomatically and economically isolated," Geraghty wrote. While Biden said the U.S. government has "every confidence" Ukraine will prevail, the documents reveal that isn't true.

"This is bad," Geraghty said. "It is bad that this assessment leaked; it is bad that this assessment of Ukraine’s abilities in the spring offensive are so modest or grim; it is bad that apparently lots of foreign-policy experts have doubts about the administration’s approach but are afraid to say so publicly; and it is bad that Biden’s public assessment of the war in Ukraine is the same rosy-eyed, unrealistic optimism that characterized his assessment of Afghanistan, inflation, migrants crossing the border, and the Chinese spy balloon. The president is always telling us that things are going great and that we have nothing to worry about, and a little later, we learn that the truth is the opposite."

In Fox News, Judith Miller says she sometimes favors leaks, but this one concerns her. And "not for the reason most analysts now cite."

“Yes, this most recent unauthorized disclosure could potentially complicate Ukraine’s impending offensive against Russian forces. And yes, it could also make U.S. allies more hesitant to share sensitive information with Washington and complicate American diplomatic relations with them." But what it really shows is that the "overclassification" of government materials "continues" while "Washington is still unable to protect truly sensitive national security information against such leaks."

Allies "are well aware" that the U.S. spies on them and that Ukraine is planning a counteroffensive. The main risk is "exposing the sources and methods that the U.S. has used to spy on Russia and others." It's not clear we'll ever find out who leaked the documents, "but this much seems certain, as long as Washington continues massively classifying even mundane information, and as long as government agencies fail to protect material that can truly cause damage [to] national security, such leaks are likely to continue. "

In The Washington Examiner, Byron York contrasted how these leaks are framed when viewed next to those under Trump.

The biggest takeaway is that "U.S. intelligence concluded in February that Ukraine's military effort is falling "well short" of its goals." Perhaps that is "the point of the entire leak," to "create pressure and momentum for a negotiated settlement." Intelligence officials have expressed "deep anger about the leak," but "not all leaks are viewed as serious security breaches." York cites three leaked conversations between foreign allies and the Trump administration which were praised as patriotic or positive.

"Those were the days when leaks, all targeting Trump, were good," York wrote. "Now, there are new leaks in the news. They are terribly serious. Like the Trump-era leaks before them, the person or persons responsible should be caught and punished. (That would be unusual. Most of the time, no perpetrator is caught, and no one is punished.) But this time, the leaker will at least be roundly denounced, which is as it should be and a welcome change from recent years."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. You can also leave a comment.

  • I am pro-leak.
  • This leak has a lot of revealing, important information, most notably the struggle of Ukraine's military.
  • There are some jaw-dropping elements, like the purported plan for Egypt to sell weapons to Russia.

First of all, I love leaks. As a journalist, they are one of my favorite occurrences, because they often give us an unfiltered look at events and allow us the opportunity to compare those events to how the government and media spin them.

Sure, there are times when leaks are worrisome, or there are repercussions that could be deleterious, but I'm almost always glad they happen. You don't have to think Edward Snowden or Reality Winner are "heroes" to believe that we are a more informed populace because of what they did. The same is true for these leaks.

Like Geraghty (under "What the right is saying"), I think the most consequential element of these leaks is the less-rosy assessment of the war in Ukraine. Our military thinks Ukraine is "well short" of where it needs to be to take back parts of Russian-occupied territory this spring, which, of course, is basically the opposite of the projection of strength and optimism about Ukraine's "vitality” that Biden has made publicly.

Critics of our involvement in Ukraine will view this as proof we are wasting money and prolonging a stalemate war (something else the documents say: "Enduring Ukrainian deficiencies in training and munitions supplies probably will strain progress and exacerbate casualties during the offensive"). Ukraine supporters will argue this is simply proof we should ramp up support and should have been more aggressive funding the war. Either way, it's a more honest piece of core intelligence than what the government has been giving us.

There is also fresh evidence of special forces on the ground in Ukraine. According to the documents, the United Kingdom has the largest group of special forces in Ukraine (50), followed by Latvia (17), France (15), the United States (14) and the Netherlands (1). This largely matches speculation in the press, but was still eye-opening to see verified in an intelligence report.

I found other parts of the intel more shocking, though perhaps less consequential in the grand scheme of things. Egypt's purported consideration of selling rockets to Russia is the most jaw-dropping to me. Egypt, one of our closest Middle East allies, is supposed to be neutral. It has voted to condemn Russia at the United Nations and receives $1.3 billion in military aid from us each year. But the documents allege Egypt's President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi was ordering subordinates to produce and ship forty thousand rockets to Russia. And, according to those same documents, to keep it secret "to avoid problems with the West."

I shouldn't have to flesh this out, but just to be clear: This would essentially amount to the United States supplying both sides of the war. We are sending billions and billions in defense for Ukraine while also funding another nation which is sending weapons to Russia.

Israel's spy agency Mossad encouraging demonstrations against Netanyahu was also eye-opening — in part because of the implication that our spies have penetrated Israel's military, but mostly because it is representative of just how deep the discontent with Netanyahu really is.

On the whole, the leaks paint a picture of a much more dire situation in Ukraine than we knew of, a top ally (Egypt) exploring an idea that would amount to a betrayal, and a top global leader (Netanyahu) facing high levels of discontent in his own military. Add to that Russia’s intel agency’s apparent courting of the United Arab Emirates and revelations about our spies inside South Korea, and I agree with those (on the left and right) who say it was a revealing and explosive leak.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I was wondering what your current thoughts are on the Taibbi / Musk saga. Your take on the Hunter Biden laptop / Twitter files pushed me to try to look at things from a different perspective. It was, however, one of the few times when I couldn't wrap my head around it. In light of the Medhi Hasan/Taibbi interview, and the subsequent Musk/Taibbi fallout, do you still think the Twitter files are of vital importance? Do you still consider Taibbi a hero considering his refusal to criticize Musk on his opposing free speech on his so-called free speech platform? Thanks!

— Ted from Geneva, Switzerland

Tangle: I think the latest revelations around Elon, Taibbi and Twitter are all disappointing. But I don't know how much it changes my view on the entire Twitter files story.

First, a few clarifications. I never called Taibbi a "hero." I said he was a writing idol of mine, and he is: His career at Rolling Stone and elsewhere was prolific, and his success as an independent writer is admirable. Even Hasan spent the first minute of his interview with Taibbi praising his work. That being said, he has also been accused of (and admitted to) some very unsavory things, so maybe "idol" is a regrettable word. But I still admire his work as a reporter.

I also don't think Taibbi has refused to criticize Musk. In fact, he has been open in his criticism of Musk's decision to censor Substack links on Twitter (though he seems to avoid the subject of Twitter bending the knee to censorship in India).

The Taibbi-Hasan interview was great television and I'm glad MSNBC aired it. Medhi is as partisan as they come, but is still an excellent interviewer and took Taibbi to task for some mistakes in his reporting which he conceded live on air. Those kinds of mistakes undermine Taibbi’s credibility as a reporter, but they weren't the kinds of errors that fundamentally change much of the Twitter files story, which I still think was a fascinating look into moderation and censorship decisions at a major social media platform.

The most disappointing character in this whole saga has been Musk himself. I cheered his initial involvement in Twitter, and was cautiously optimistic about his purchase of it. But the app is getting glitchier, and the content I see there seems spammier by the day. You’re right, he has not been the free speech advocate he pledged to be, and spends far too much time using Twitter to settle personal grudges and publicly lambast his own employees. So in that sense, it has been a very big letdown.

Blindspot report.

Once a week, we present the Blindspot Report from our partners at Ground News, an app that tells you the bias of news coverage and what stories people on each side are missing.

Under the radar.

The Biden administration released a set of three proposals Tuesday for cutting usage of the Colorado River’s water. One proposal would allocate cuts based on prior legal priority; another would evenly distribute the cuts among Arizona, California and Nevada; and the third is to take no action. The proposal to distribute cuts among lower basin states would break precedent and force Californians to shoulder more of a load. The river is in the midst of a 23-year drought, and the states could not previously come to an agreement on cuts to address it. We covered this story in February here. You can read more about the proposal from Axios here.


  • 58. The number of Senate votes missed by Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) since a February diagnosis of shingles.
  • 2024. The year WNBA star Brittney Griner is expected to release a memoir about her 10-month detention in Russia.
  • Two-thirds. The estimated number of new cars sold in the U.S. that will be electric by 2032, according to a new EPA projection.
  • $3.61. The average price of a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. on Tuesday.
  • $5.02. The average price of a gallon of gasoline in June, at its peak.

The extras.

  • One year ago, we were covering the Amazon workers who unionized.
  • The most clicked link in Monday's newsletter: The FBI's warning not to use public phone charging stations.
  • Landslide: 87.7% of Tangle readers said they do not think we should ban medication abortion drugs.
  • Nothing to do with politics: 31% of respondents in a YouGov survey said they have hit the button to close elevator doors because they saw someone was trying to get on and didn't want to ride the elevator with them.
  • Take the poll. What level of aid should the U.S. be providing to Ukraine in their fight against Russia? Let us know (Note: We are using Google forms for today's poll because of technical difficulties with SurveyMonkey).

Have a nice day.

Next time you are looking for a delicious Philly cheesesteak, you might consider... going to Pakistan. Lahore, a Pakistani city, is now home to Philly's Steak Sandwich, a small cafe that opened in 2021 and is starting to see its business boom. The sandwich comes with a special Pakistani twist: marinating the thin beef slices in spices before dropping it in the roll. Chef Mazhar Hussain says the sandwich is winning fans by merging "the flavors of Philadelphia and Lahore." Philly Mag has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.