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What do the Pentagon Papers really tell us?


As the focus around the rather grandiosely-titled Pentagon Papers switches to the identity of the leaker, the question of what the intelligence files reveal goes on apace. The astonishing arrest of a rookie guardsman, Jack Teixeira, is already sparking congressional inquiries into how the 21-year-old was allegedly able to leak up to 300 documents to his friends on the gaming platform, Discord. America’s embarrassment is plain for all to see and her allies will be thinking twice about sharing their own intelligence with the US for fear it too could end up being pored over in some teenager’s chatroom.

So what do these Pentagon Papers tell us and how much damage has Teixeira – or whoever was responsible – done?

I don’t think I’d be giving any state secrets away when I say they’re not on the same scale as the Pentagon Papers from 1971 which revealed how President Johnson had lied to Congress and the American public about the Vietnam War. There is not going to be Hollywood movie starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks about this year’s leak. The leaker, maybe. But in the world of geopolitics the revelations are still pretty jaw-dropping, a throwback to the days of Chelsea Manning who handed 750,000 documents to Wikileaks and Edward Snowden’s revelations about America’s global surveillance programmes.

The headline grabbing documents have centred on Ukraine, particularly around when the beleaguered country’s air defences will be so badly depleted that Putin could start a new bombing run, as well as tensions between Washington and its allies over the arming of Kyiv. So the biggest beneficiary of the leak will be Vladimir Putin.

Conversely, there is also information on disagreements within Russia over the number of casualties which Putin has suffered. While Moscow estimates 110,000 losses so far, US documents put the real figures as high as more than double that, at 223,000.

And there’s a bunch of spying stories which show America snoops on allies such as Israel, South Korea and, yes, Ukraine, as well as the UN. But given that leaked documents from Snowden 10 years ago showed the US had been conducting extensive surveillance of European leaders, such as the then German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is that really a surprise?

Just as eye-catching are the revelations about which countries that we consider to be allies have actually behind our backs been cosying up to Russia, not just economically but also militarily.

The documents show how Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have been working both sides in the war despite long-standing security relationships with Washington and London. American spies caught their Russian counterparts boasting about how they had convinced the UAE to work together “against the US and UK intelligence agencies”.

There have already been indications that the Emiraties were secretly helping the Kremlin. In March a US Treasury official, Assistant Secretary Elizabeth Rosenberg, singled out the UAE as a “country of focus” where businesses were helping Russia evade international sanctions to obtain more than £4m in US semi-conductors and other export-controlled parts, including those with battlefield uses.

In 2020 the US Intelligence Agency also said the UAE may be providing funding for the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary group now active in Ukraine.

The other country which, according to the leaked files, has been helping Russia is Egypt, which stands accused of supplying Putin with 40,000 rockets. It was said that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had ordered production of the weapons but told officials to keep it a secret “to avoid problems with the West”.

Workers in munitions factories were informed that the weapons were meant for the Egyptian army when really the shipment was repayment to Russia for “unspecified help earlier”, it is claimed.

According to leaked files, the Wagner mercenary group has also “met with Turkish contacts to purchase weapons and equipment from Turkey”. This despite Turkey having been a member of Nato since 1952.

So let’s not be wide eyed about this. Three countries who we and the US considered to be close allies in the War on Terror during the 20 years that followed the 9/11 attacks are now giving assistance to the enemy in a new war in Europe.

The UAE has form for double-dealing. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine the Russian oligarchs flocked there as a financial haven to hide their wealth, and were welcomed with open arms. Reports have shown how dirty money underpins Dubai’s prosperity and the Emirati government refused to condemn the invasion during a UN Security Council vote at the time.

The hard new reality is that these shifting allegiances and alliances reflect the willingness of countries in the Middle East to align more closely with China and Russia, to the detriment of the West. It’s why President Biden has fallen out with Saudi Arabia over its decision to cut oil production to push up petrol prices and boost Putin’s energy coffers, while hitting Biden at home with price hikes at the pump.

The one upside for the West, as proven in the past week, is that despite America’s declining influence in the region and the wider world, it still enjoys huge success in the field of espionage. It will have to repair damage with some allies, and take a firmer hand with others, but the extent to which its field operations have been disrupted, with agents compromised, remains to be seen.

Like often in these cases, we may never know.