China’s state-run propaganda outlets welcomed the news of extensive alleged leaks from the U.S. government surfacing in dozens of documents on social media sites and video game servers, declaring the information on Wednesday to be a blow to Washington’s “surveillance empire.”
The state-run Xinhua News Agency, China Daily, and the Global Times all weighed in on the blossoming scandal, comparing it to the 2013 revelations of extensive National Security Agency (NSA) spying by leaker Edward Snowden and predicting that America would lose critical allies such as South Korea over the alleged revelations.
Corporate media outlets in the United States, most notably the left-wing New York Times and Washington Post, began publishing reports over the weekend on America’s involvement in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, citing the documents in question.
According to an investigation by the U.K. Guardian, the documents had been circulating on Discord, a video game social network, for months, potentially as early as January. Users shared the documents, including items marked “top secret” and illustrative slides, which seemingly detailed Ukrainian military assets and troop movements.
Some of the documents detailed alleged casualty counts of Russian and Ukrainian forces. Others appeared to reveal the presence of American, British, and other Western special forces on the ground in Ukraine. Still, others involved the alleged activities of third parties regarding the conflict, most prominently South Korea and Egypt.
The document on South Korea claimed — citing “signal intelligence,” or American espionage — that Seoul was hesitant to sell military hardware to America out of concerns that the administration of left-wing President Joe Biden would gift those weapons to Ukraine, thus involving South Korea in the conflict. The documents alleged that Washington had reason to believe the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was manufacturing weapons for Russia.
Five third parties implicated in the alleged leaks — South Korea, Egypt, the United Kingdom, Ukraine, and Russia — have publically denied that the information in the documents is accurate. South Korea and Ukraine have denounced the documents as fabricated or “forged,” suggesting they are not real American intelligence, while countries like Egypt have simply denied the allegations in the documents.
The Pentagon itself has expressed confusion about the situation.
“The Department of Defense is working around the clock to look at the scope and scale of the distribution, the assessed impact and our mitigation measures. We’re still investigating how this happened, as well as the scope of the issue,” Chris Meagher, assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, told reporters on Monday.
National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby told reporters on Monday that some of the documents appearing online had been “altered,” suggesting the information within them could be false but stressing that the U.S. government generally was still working to understand the scope of what documents were out there and verify how much of their contents were accurate.
Xinhua, the Chinese government flagship news agency, seized on the contents of the South Korea document to conclude that countries friendly to America cannot trust that they are not being spied on.
“The reported leaks of highly classified documents that have been trending online recently shed light on the extensive spying activities conducted by Washington on its allies and foes alike,” Xinhua declared on Wednesday.
“The recent leak saga is just a glimpse of Washington’s long-standing indiscriminate surveillance of the world,” the state media outlet asserted. “In fact, the U.S. indiscriminate surveillance of the world is well-documented, earning it a notorious reputation as a surveillance empire with no regard for privacy or international law.”
Xinhua claimed the documents had created a “crisis of trust” with South Korea in particular, noting outrage from members of the left-wing opposition Democratic Party in the country to the revelations in the document. President Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration referred to some allegedly leaked documents as “forged” but did not specify which ones, though it implied that it referred to those involving South Korea.
Xinhua, like the Global Times, compared the situation to the aftermath of NSA leaks by Edward Snowden, a former NSA worker who stole American government secrets and published them through several journalists in 2013.
“As early as 2013, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that Washington had been spying on the email and cell phone communications of as many as 35 world leaders,” Xinhua claimed.
The Global Times more explicitly cited Chinese regime-approved “experts” calling the alleged leaks this weekend “another PRISM incident,” referring to the espionage program that Snowden revealed to the public. PRISM, according to Snowden’s leaks, was intimately spying on millions of Americans.
“Calling the leak ‘another PRISM incident,’ Chinese military expert Song Zhongping noted that for one thing, it exposes a huge loophole in America’s national security,” the Global Times reported, “and for another, it deals a significant blow to US intelligence authorities, which would become a major shortcoming that affects the cooperation with its allies.”
The Times quoted the “expert” Song as calling the alleged “distrust and disunity” caused by the alleged leaks “a heavy blow to the US’ strategy of maintaining global hegemony.” It also claimed that, within America, the alleged leaks were tearing the country apart.
“Many are dissatisfied with Washington’s policy that both harms the interests of its own and the common welfare of countries around the world,” the state newspaper, citing a regime-approved professor, asserted, “and such outrage over the government’s abuse of power in overseas and domestic operations has accumulated to a point that eventually led to the leak.”
The Global Times and Xinhua, in their condemnations of the United States for alleged spying on allies, omitted the evidence that China maintains extensive intelligence-gathering operations against states it views as friends. Multiple cybersecurity firms revealed in 2018, for example, that China used the infrastructure plan known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in which China offers poor countries predatory loans to be used on the construction of infrastructure projects, to spy on its allies. A study by the FireEye firm found evidence that Chinese cyberespionage groups targeted Belarus, the Maldives, and Cambodia.
“We expect BRI will also highlight the capabilities of emerging cyber actors across Asia and the Middle East and under what norms such nation-states sponsors will employ their capabilities,” FireEye said at the time.
Recorded Future, another cybersecurity firm, found evidence of China using the BRI to spy on Kenya, Brazil, and Mongolia through the elite Tsinghua University, dictator Xi Jinping’s alma mater.
China Daily, another state-run newspaper, focused its ire regarding the alleged Pentagon leaks on the documents claiming that American special forces were present in Ukraine, calling America “odious.”
“If anything, the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine has provided Washington with a glimmer of hope that it may be possible to make the military conflict a protracted war and thus divide the world into two camps,” China Daily argued, “the one that supports Ukraine and the other that supports Russia.”
“It is both selfish and callous of Washington to do whatever it can to make the hostilities continue and do nothing to seek a political settlement of the conflict,” the propaganda outlet concluded, suggesting that China was improving the situation.
China claims to be neutral in the Ukraine conflict despite being Russia’s top geopolitical ally and an eager buyer of Russian fuel, supplying funds used in the war. Ukraine is a BRI member country and has repeatedly, without success, urged China to help Kyiv stop the Russian invasion.