Under pressure: Austin seeks to soothe Ukraine, European allies after intel leak
Austin’s other challenge will be assuring allies that the Defense Department is doing more to safeguard classified materials, particularly those related to foreign partners. He must also relay to his counterparts that those measures will not hamper their own access to the Pentagon’s plans for Ukraine, or other international cooperation.
Law enforcement last week arrested Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, in connection with the Justice Department investigation into the online leaks. Teixeira, an IT specialist, allegedly took photos of the classified materials and shared them to a private chatroom on Discord, a social media platform popular with gamers.
Speaking to reporters at Sweden’s Muskö Naval Base on Wednesday after a meeting with his Swedish counterpart, Austin declined to provide details about the investigation. Asked whether a 21-year-old should have access to the nation’s top secrets, Austin noted that “the vast majority of our military is young.”
“It’s not exceptional that young people are doing important things in our military. That’s really not the issue,” Austin said, noting that Teixeira is a “computer specialist” who worked in an intelligence unit and held a top secret clearance. Part of his responsibility was “maintaining the network” that the unit operates on, Austin said.
“The issue is how you responsibly execute or carry out your duties and how you protect the information,” Austin said. “All of us have a requirement to do that, and supervisors have a requirement to make sure that that’s being done.”
So far, DoD officials say they are not overly concerned that the leak will hurt relationships abroad, or Austin’s ability to rally Western partners to donate weapons to Ukraine.
While Austin’s role as leader of the year-old Ukraine Defense Contact Group is already a challenging one, there are no signs that job has gotten any harder in the last few weeks, said one senior DoD official, who was granted anonymity to speak about the discussions ahead of the trip.
“He remains determined. He remains very focused on what needs to get done,” the DoD official said. “We all in the secretary’s team continue to be highly motivated, very confident. We know how to do this. We’ve been doing this for a year.”
The Pentagon is also not seeing any wavering from allies after the leak, the official said.
“All the signs we are seeing from allies and partners is absolute firmness and determination to keep doing it. The fact that we are meeting again … is itself a sign of that commitment,” the official said.
Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson said the leak was not on the agenda during his Wednesday meeting with Austin. He also said he is not concerned about the leak potentially affecting Stockholm’s access to intelligence.
“We have good intelligence cooperation between Sweden and the United States, as we have a strong defense and security cooperation, and we rest assured of U.S. commitment to taking this seriously,” Jonson said during the joint press conference. “We have [been] reassured on the bilateral basis, and feel completely sure of the U.S. commitment on handling the situation.”
Since news of the leak emerged, the Pentagon has clamped down on access to classified information by narrowing distribution lists and reviewing how the information is shared and with whom. DoD is also reexamining how it vets service members, including whether background checks for those seeking security clearances need to be strengthened, Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said on Monday.
Teixeira’s unit, the 102nd Intelligence Wing, has been ordered to halt its intelligence mission as the Air Force’s inspector general conducts an investigation, the service said Tuesday. All units will also have to conduct a “security-focused standdown” in the next 30 days.
Those steps could prompt worries from allies who fear they will be shut out of important conversations. Investigators have already examined whether Teixeira interacted with anyone from a foreign government or entity before allegedly posting classified material online, POLITICO reported.
Top Ukrainian officials have expressed frustration with both the leak itself and the Pentagon’s downbeat assessment of Ukraine’s chances on the battlefield. U.S. intelligence assessed that Ukraine would see only modest gains from a planned spring counteroffensive, The Washington Post reported.
“The same people who said Kyiv would fall in three days are now leaking harmful and equally ridiculous information ahead of an offensive critically important for the entire free world,” a person in regular contact with senior officials in Kyiv told POLITICO.
Yet this is not the first time DoD has expressed reservations about Ukraine’s capabilities: Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley, who will also be leading the meeting at Ramstein alongside Austin, said last fall that he did not think Kyiv could expel Russian forces from all of Ukraine.
Austin is scheduled to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, on Friday ahead of the larger group meeting.
In an outward sign of the Pentagon’s continuing support for Ukraine, the Biden administration on Wednesday announced another $325 million in additional military aid for Ukraine, the 36th drawdown of equipment from U.S. stocks since the conflict began and the first since the leak came to light.
The package, which primarily includes munitions, missiles and anti-armor capabilities, is focused on boosting Ukraine’s weapons stocks ahead of a widely anticipated spring offensive.
Also on Wednesday, Kyiv received two Patriot missile defense systems, one from the U.S. and one as part of a combined effort from Germany and the Netherlands, which will be used to defend against Russian air and missile attacks.
European security officials, on the other hand, are less disturbed by the leaks and what they contain.
“I can’t detect any change in mood,” said one senior European diplomat, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal alliance dynamics.
The U.S., the diplomat said, “has informed allies about the leak and about their efforts to clarify what happened. Within the alliance and in the Ramstein format, work continues with the aim of keeping up the support to Ukraine.”
A second senior European diplomat also said they did not see a shift as a result of the leaks.
“In any case no classified NATO documents were leaked,” this person said, adding that it’s “not a big concern in the house.”
While some officials do say the leaks are an issue, they also argue that risks for intelligence-sharing already exist within the large Ramstein group format and the U.S. leak doesn’t change the bigger picture.
“The leaks have a negative impact, but they will not affect that much of the information sharing with the U.S., nor the plans to continue the support for Ukraine,” said a third senior European diplomat. Friday’s Ramstein meeting, the diplomat said, “will go along just fine.”
There is a strong focus now, officials say, on addressing industrial production challenges.
Resolve is “not diminished in any way,” said the first senior European diplomat. The alliance’s national armaments directors “will work even harder on ramping up defense industry capacity and on getting the right signals to industry,” the diplomat said.
There is, they added, “a very palpable sense of urgency.”