HUMINT United States intelligence leaks that embarrassed the country


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From the Pentagon Papers in 1971 to the recent Pentagon Leaks, the US has a long history of classified documents landing in the public domain.​

As a military and economic superpower, the United States is known for its most extensive intelligence-gathering network globally.

For decades, successive US administrations have discussed and debated how much of the information can be shared and how much held back from the public and media.

However, the US reputation in the global arena has been damaged after the leak of top secret materials several times by government employees.

These scandals have not only impacted the country’s diplomatic ties but also discredited itself in the eyes of American citizens.

A trove of US military documents, some of them highly classified, have found their way into the public domain through social media channels, the latest in the long history of similar incidents.

Here are five embarrassing moments in US history over leaked classified documents.

Pentagon Papers

Officially known as “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force,” Pentagon Papers is one of the most well-known leaks in US history.

The secret materials — leaked by political activist and military analyst Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 — showed how the US government was lying to the public about the Vietnam War’s progress and that officials had serious doubts about the battle’s winnability.

The leak occurred during Richard Nixon’s presidency but was filed when Nixon was not in power.


The cover of a Pentagon Papers volume. (University of Virginia)


Owned by an Icelandic non-governmental organisation, WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of pages of top-secret US government documents, including military reports and diplomatic links.

US soldier Chelsea Manning — known as Bradley Manning earlier — who had access to classified materials, leaked the documents in 2010.

The government records included details about the torture of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, the killing of civilians by US troops, and details about the US government's relationships with other countries.

It was a major blow to Barack Obama’s administration which had to scramble to contain the damage and the treatment of prisoners.

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, published the materials provided by Manning. Assange is imprisoned by British authorities and he is waiting to be extradited to the US. Manning served seven years in prison but her 35 years sentence was commuted by Obama in 2017.

Snowden revelations

Former National Security Agency (NSA) employee Edward Snowden disclosed secret government materials in 2013 that exposed the US’ extensive surveillance programmes.

Files showed that the US intelligence was collecting vast amounts of data on Americans and foreigners around the world, including phone calls, emails, and internet activity.

Obama’s administration which represented itself as a Democratic and pro-liberty government was hit again with the Snowden scandal.

The whistleblower, charged with espionage and theft of government property, fled the US to Russia and gained citizenship.

Russian Involvement in 2016 elections

US intelligence agencies wrapped up a conclusion that the Russian government had been involved in the 2016 election run-up in favour of presidential candidate Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton.

Reality Winner, a former Air Force linguist, pleaded guilty in 2018 to leaking the report to the investigative news outlet, The Intercept.

Winner faced over five years imprisonment but she was released earlier due to “the time earned from exemplary behaviour while incarcerated.”

The leak raised concerns about the security of US elections and led to ongoing investigations into Russian interference.

Pentagon Leaks

The 2023 leaks are believed to be the most serious data protection failure since WikiLeaks revealed 700,000 documents.

Disclosed materials show Ukraine's military capabilities and shortcomings, and information about US allies including Israel, South Korea, China and possible spies around the world working for Washington.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officials have detained Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old airman, as a suspect in an intelligence leak.

US officials have not been able to calculate the damage of the security breach, yet as documents were circulating on various social media platforms.


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