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Pentagon Leaks Alarm Washington
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Pentagon Leaks Alarm Washington

Plus: Members of Congress concerned about flaws in the rollout of a forced-labor law.

U.S. and Ukrainian flags at a memorial for fallen soldiers in Kyiv, 2023. (Photo by Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In the aftermath of a major leak of classified Pentagon documents, Defense Department officials are doing damage control with U.S. allies while developing policies to stop future breaches. Lawmakers are on recess, but that hasn’t stopped them from seeking more information about the leak or publicly commenting on the contents of the documents. 

The top members of the Senate and House intelligence committees in particular have requested details, and congressional leaders are expected to ask the administration to deliver briefings in each chamber for all members about it.

The U.S. government is still determining how far the breach goes, but for now it appears to include at least 100 documents, many of which were intended only for the highest level of classification within the government. The documents have been circulating on online messaging channels since at least early March. The Dispatch could not independently authenticate them.

They contain sensitive intelligence about American allies, including South Korea and Israel, as well as detailed reports about the war in Ukraine. The exposure is placing stress on diplomatic relationships with allies.

One major takeaway: A file included in the leaks estimated Ukraine could run out of anti-aircraft missiles as soon as May, offering Russia a chance to achieve air superiority in the war. The situation is fluid and may have changed since the information was compiled, as allies have sent more resources to Ukraine. Defense hawks are pointing to the leak as they call for more aid to the country.

“The leaked military documents tell us what we already know: Ukraine is running low on weapons, and the Biden administration’s failure to act is prolonging the war,” said Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton.

Lawmakers are also responding to a major revelation within the leaks that, if true, would strain relations with Egypt. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi and senior military officials outlined a plan to covertly supply Russia with ammunition and up to 40,000 rockets, according to a document dated February 17, while hoping “to avoid problems with the West.” Egyptian officials are denying the claims. 

Egypt relies on roughly $1.3 billion in American security assistance each year. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy told the Washington Post that the plan, if true, should prompt “a serious reckoning about the state of our relationship.”

The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the leak, while the Pentagon is trying to determine how far it goes.

“We don’t know what else might be coming or what else they might have access to,” said Rep. Mike Turner, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “That’s why it’s so important to find the source and to close down the source.”

Lawmakers Examine Forced-Labor Law Implementation

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is raising concerns about implementation of the landmark Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

In a Tuesday letter to the administration official spearheading the effort, members of Congress noted an oversight flaw The Dispatch first reported late last year that is hindering lawmakers’ attempts to stop forced-labor products from reaching American consumers. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Marco Rubio, along with Reps. Chris Smith and Jim McGovern, say they are worried that “Congress lacks sufficient information and transparency” to determine if the administration is enforcing the law as Congress intended.

The letter outlines oversight priorities for the lawmakers, who serve as the top four members of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. The panel is set to hold a hearing on the law next week.

The forced-labor law represents the strongest American response to China’s genocide to date, and lawmakers are pressing for full enforcement. Members recall corporate lobbying campaigns against the legislation as they pushed for its passage, as well as resistance from some senior Biden administration officials who worried the bill could hamper a transition to solar energy because much of the solar industry relies on inputs from Xinjiang. Lawmakers want transparency to make sure business interests and political motivations aren’t creeping into decisions to release shipments.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act blocks from entering the United States all goods touched by Xinjiang—the region where the Chinese government is committing genocide against mostly Muslim ethnic groups—and all products tied to related forced-labor programs. Customs and Border Protection has been ramping up implementation of the ban since last summer. (If you want to read a comprehensive history of how the law passed, we have you covered.)

Thus far, CBP has halted 3,237 shipments for review under the law, according to data from the agency. Of those shipments, CBP has further investigated and denied 424 from entering the United States. But 1,090 other shipments out of the 3,237 have ultimately been released into America following further review. The released products include solar equipment, chemicals, agricultural goods, textiles and apparel, and household goods, among other items. The rest of the initially halted shipments are still being reviewed.

After first blocking many solar shipments under the new law, it appears CBP has been allowing more of them into the country. Last month, John Podesta—a senior adviser to President Joe Biden on clean energy—told reporters there is “clearer guidance out, and we’re seeing more shipments coming through.” A CBP spokesperson did not respond when asked to clarify what Podesta meant by this and if CBP can provide an estimate of how many of the shipments it has released thus far were related to the solar industry.

Beyond CBP’s public statistics, Congress has little insight into the release of shipments and how such decisions are being made. Members and staff expected far more transparency into this process when they wrote the bill. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act requires detailed reports to Congress about cargo released into the U.S. after initially being stopped under the law. But lawmakers haven’t been getting those reports about released shipments.

That’s because companies have taken an entirely different route than the one prescribed by the law to push back on detentions of their shipments. Rather than trying to meet the law’s “clear and convincing” standard against forced labor, companies are arguing CBP got it wrong by halting their products and that they don’t have any inputs from Xinjiang. That’s evidently an easier threshold to meet than the one laid out in the law, but the criteria CBP relies on to evaluate those cases isn’t very clear to Congress. 

CBP’s lawyers argue these other kinds of reviews don’t require reports to Congress. That approach, the four lawmakers wrote on Tuesday, appears “to skirt the intent” of the law.

“While we appreciate the difficulty and scope of enforcing UFLPA, we seek greater transparency about this review process and more clarity why goods stopped based on evidence of a link to the XUAR or labor transfer programs outside the XUAR are being cleared without congressional or public reporting,” the four lawmakers wrote Tuesday.

The members also pushed the administration to expand a list of companies and other entities that are involved in sweeping forced labor transfer schemes that send ethnic groups to other parts of China to work. The law bans products touched by entities involved in those programs, but implementing that ban can happen only if Customs and Border Protection compiles a comprehensive list of the entities involved. Thus far, experts say CBP’s list is limited, mainly including groups that had already faced American sanctions. It leaves off many entities researchers have independently tied to forced labor transfer schemes. 

“We want to understand whether this discrepancy is a matter of criteria or process or both,” the members of Congress wrote Tuesday. “We are concerned that the process is too bureaucratically cumbersome to allow for effective decision-making on listings.”

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which crafted the law and pushed for its passage, will hold a hearing on its rollout next Tuesday. Experts on labor trafficking in China, supply chain mapping, and forced labor are expected to testify, according to a person familiar with the commission’s plans.

The lawmakers noted in their letter that scheduling conflicts prevented Biden administration officials from appearing before the commission next week, but they will seek to hold another hearing with officials about enforcement of the law in the future.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.