The US is attempting to mend fences with key allies after leaked Pentagon documents claimed Washington had been spying on friendly countries including South Korea and Israel.
The US secretary of defence, Lloyd Austin, spoke to his South Korean counterpart on Tuesday as officials in Seoul denied the possibility that the president’s office could have been the source of leaks over South Korean arms sales to the US.
The disclosure of the highly classified material represents Washington’s worst national security breach in many years and included details about Ukraine’s lack of ammunition and US intelligence collection methods used against Russia.
One of the latest leaks claims Egypt was planning to covertly supply Russia with rockets and other munitions, although the US was said to believe the plan had never been carried out, the Washington Post reports.
Asked about the documents, the spokesperson for Egypt’s foreign ministry, Ahmed Abu Zeid, told the Washington Post: “Egypt’s position from the beginning is based on non-involvement in this crisis and committing to maintain equal distance with both sides, while affirming Egypt’s support to the UN charter and international law.”
The unverified documents relating to South Korea, including some apparently based on internal discussions among top South Korean security officials, claimed Seoul was concerned that artillery shells bound for the US could eventually find their way to Ukraine.
The possibility that South Korean weapons could be used by Ukraine would be deeply problematic for the president, Yoon Suk Yeol, as it would violate the country’s longstanding policy – supported by a majority of voters – of not exporting weapons to countries at war.
On Tuesday, however, officials attempted to play down the significance of the Pentagon documents, whose authenticity has not been independently confirmed. Yoon’s office said an initial investigation had concluded there was “little chance” that internal discussions had been intercepted by US intelligence officials, the Yonhap news agency said.
Kim Tae-hyo, South Korea’s deputy national security adviser, claimed the information reportedly gleaned from internal discussions was “untrue” and had been “altered”.
“The two countries have the same assessment – that much of the information disclosed is altered,” Kim told reporters as he left for Washington in advance of Yoon’s visit to the US at the end of the month.
The undated document in question said South Korea had agreed to sell artillery shells to help the US replenish its stockpiles, insisting that the “end user” should be the US. But it added that senior South Korean officials were worried that Washington would divert the shells to Ukraine.
Kim said speculation that the US had been spying on South Korea – a key ally and host to 28,500 US troops – would not harm bilateral ties. “The US is the country with the world’s best intelligence capabilities and since [Yoon’s] inauguration we have shared intelligence in almost every sector,” he said.
Some analysts suggest the leaks of more than 100 highly classified US defence documents could be the “tip of the iceberg”, warning that the US could expect more damage to its reputation and its relationships with allies.
One document, marked top secret from a CIA intel update on 1 March, says Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency was encouraging its officers to take part in protests against the Israeli government’s plans to weaken the independence of the judiciary. The Israeli government denied there had been any Mossad involvement in the demonstrations.
Another document, dated 23 February and marked secret, outlined in detail how Ukraine’s Soviet-era S-300 air defence systems would be depleted by 2 May at the current usage rate.
The chief of the Australian Defence Force, Gen Angus Campbell, described the alleged leaks as potentially damaging and said their dissemination could undermine trust between allies.
Echoing the comments of the US national security council spokesperson, John Kirby, who said the leaked information “has no business … on the front pages of newspapers, or on television”, Campbell said there was a security imperative to keeping some information secret.
“There is a national interest in the protection of some information,” he told the Lowy Institute thinktank in Sydney.
The leaks come a fortnight before Yoon – a conservative who has taken a hard line on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme – is due to hold talks with Joe Biden in Washington. They also underline Seoul’s diplomatically awkward stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
While it has joined international sanctions against the Kremlin and provided non-lethal aid to Kyiv, South Korea has stopped short of providing weapons, citing domestic laws that ban sending arms to war zones. But critics have accused Yoon of trying to protect South Korean exports to Russia, whose support it needs to pressure North Korea.
Polls indicate voters back Yoon’s stance on arms exports. In a poll by Gallup Korea last June, most South Koreans said the government should provide only non-lethal aid to Ukraine. The poll found that 72% said assistance should be restricted to medical, food and other non-military aid, while just 15% said Seoul should also send weapons to Kyiv.
Additional reporting by Martin Belam