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10 Information Leaks That Shook the World

by Shaun Hennessy
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

While trying to think of stories of ancient information leaks to add to this list, my mind wandered to the story of King Leonidas of Sparta and the story depicted in the movie 300. Despite all the outlandish claims, exaggerations, and outright lies about the battle of Thermopylae in that movie, one part of the story does seem to be true. According to the accounts of Herodotus, a traitor may well have provided information about a small goat herder’s path down which the Persian King Xerxes sent troops behind Spartan lines, rendering their well-defended position ineffective.

True or not, the story does show how valuable just a little bit of information can be in a situation where one might think that the number of troops, the quality of the weapons, the cunning of the generals, or the lay of the terrain may feature more in deciding the outcome of a battle. Given the outcome of a whole war could have come down to the knowledge of a single mountain path, here are 10 much larger information leaks that changed the entire world.

Related: 10 Ways The Watergate Scandal Was Far Worse Than You Realize

10 Operation Mincemeat

Operation Mincemeat WWII deception prior to invading Italyby Ian Fleming Full

In the winter of 1943, a young homeless man named Glyndwr Michael deemed himself so worthless that he decided to take his own life by ingesting rat poison, all alone, in an abandoned hospital in London. He could never have imagined that not long after his death, he would receive full military honors, personally deceive Adolf Hitler, and lay the foundations for a military victory that finally turned the Second World War in favor of the Allied forces.

Glyndwr’s corpse was recovered from a morgue and painstakingly transformed into that of Major William Martin. Then, with an attaché full of fictitious documents, IDs, and personal effects left on his person, he was dropped into the sea off the coast of southern Spain before favorable tides led to his discovery by fishermen several hours later.

The fictitious documents alluded to an upcoming Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Greece, valuable information that the Fascist regime in charge of Spain was happy to share with the Gestapo. This “leak” was so convincing that the news eventually reached Hitler himself, who repositioned large numbers of troops, Panzer divisions, and U-boats to Greece and Eastern Europe, leaving the true target of Sicily relatively unguarded and easier for the Allied forces to invade.

This incredibly ambitious stunt allowed the Allies to gain a foothold in Italy which was a huge stepping stone toward the eventual toppling of Mussolini. The weakness of Italy led to Soviet gains on the Eastern Front as Hitler had to move nearly a fifth of his army to southern Europe to combat the Allied invasion. Effectively, the tragic end of a man who felt he had nothing left to offer anyone may have inadvertently been the key moment that led to the successful conclusion of World War II.[1]

An interesting side note about Operation Mincemeat: Ian Fleming helped design the plan, along with others while working as a British intelligence officer.

9 The Manhattan Project Leaks

On July 16, 1945, President Truman received a call to inform him that the first atomic bomb had been successfully tested. He was meeting with foreign leaders and dignitaries from around the globe in the ruins of Potsdam, Germany, for a conference to decide the future of Europe and Japan after the fall of the Nazi regime. Upon sharing the news of this unimaginable new weapon with Russian Premier Josef Stalin, Truman was surprised to notice that he barely reacted at all and continued the conference as if nothing had changed. The very next day, however, Stalin met with his nuclear scientists to discuss the prospect of equipping the U.S.S.R with this devastating new technology in a bid to level the playing field once again.

Fortunately for Stalin, many double agents and scientists who sympathized with Communist ideals worked in western countries and were willing to leak secrets to the Soviets. One such atomic scientist was Klaus Fuchs, a German physicist who worked at Los Alamos with a British team on the Manhattan Project. He leaked valuable information to the U.S.S.R that helped them accelerate their atomic program to the extent that they could design, build, and finally test an atomic warhead for the first time in August 1949.

Along with documents passed over by at least eight other known spies and scientists working in the U.S. and Great Britain, enough information was leaked to enable the already ingenious Soviet scientists to surpass their western rivals and eventually construct the thermonuclear Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear device that has ever been detonated on this planet.

Once the U.S. and Russia realized that they both had the firepower to obliterate each other, a stalemate ensued that effectively put an end to the Cold War. Had the atomic know-how not been leaked and shared by both sides, who knows what kind of catastrophe could have occurred due to the ensuing imbalance of power.[2]

8 The Pentagon Papers

40 Years After Leak, Weighing the Impact of the Pentagon Papers

In October 1969, Daniel Ellsberg was an ex-Marine working on a top-secret Pentagon study into the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war. Ellsberg had served in Vietnam, and despite originally being a supporter of the U.S. war effort, the information he discovered during the course of his research conclusively changed his opinion. He realized that numerous administrations before the current Nixon regime had misled the American public about the conflict with claims that victory or “peace with honor” was never far away, when in fact, the entire campaign in Southeast Asia had been a complete disaster. And it had all been funded by taxpayer dollars.

Over many weeks, Ellsberg managed to photocopy nearly 7,000 pages of information that he obtained from the study before approaching members of Congress and asking them to use their congressional immunity to introduce the papers into the congressional record. Finally, after being rejected numerous times, he made the incredibly risky decision to leak the study to the press.

Ellsberg contacted Neil Sheehan at The New York Times, and eventually, after a lot of tough decision-making by the newspaper’s editors, the first part of the story was published on June 13, 1971. Two days later, under instruction from President Nixon, government lawyers began a constitutional tug of war with The New York Times in an effort to block the newspaper from publishing any more information under the guise of national security. Just days later, however, The Washington Post also received a copy of the documents from Ellsberg, and they decided to publish them too.

The information obtained by Ellsberg was eventually edited and published as a book. The leak showed clear evidence that the American public had been misled by numerous administrations about many different aspects of the war. The methods of attempting to block the publication and prosecute Ellsberg did a huge amount of damage to the Nixon regime. However, it was another information leak that finally ended Nixon’s presidency, which is the next (more famous) leak on this list.[3]

7 The Watergate Scandal

Watergate: Inside the scandal that took down a presidency

As a reaction to the Pentagon Papers, President Nixon set up a covert group named the White House Plumbers in an effort to halt any future leaks. This group created a list of people who were deemed a threat to Nixon being re-elected. They included opposition politicians, journalists, and even Hollywood stars who were harassed, audited, and monitored by the group—all with the goal to discredit them.

At the same time, members of the Nixon administration began forming a Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP) before the 1972 election. This committee used nefarious, underhanded, and illegal methods to increase Nixon’s chances of retaining the presidency, including a plan to bug and steal information from the Democratic committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.

June 17, 1972, was the second time agents hired by the CRP had broken into the Democratic headquarters, but this time, police caught and arrested five of the intruders, and the FBI launched an investigation. Again, Nixon reacted publicly by denying any involvement while at the same time ordering the CIA to attempt to block the investigation into the funding of the CRP and its links to the White House Plumbers.

Two former White House employees provided information in court that turned out to be critical to the case. Lawyer John Dean divulged that Nixon knew all about the cover-up. The President’s former assistant John Butterfield revealed that Nixon had installed recording devices throughout the White House that proved his guilt. In an attempt to save himself, Nixon refused to release the tapes citing executive privilege before dismissing the attorney general and his deputy. Eventually, the “Watergate Seven” were all indicted. The tapes were finally released in July 1974—except for the infamous missing 18½ minutes, that is—proving that some involved in the break-in received hush money and that the President had known about the cover-up since mid-1972. On August 8, 1974, Nixon resigned and was replaced by Gerald Ford, who pardoned his predecessor one month later.[4]

6 The Plame Affair

The story of the “Plame Affair” is unusual because the leak in this story was a deliberate act of personal sabotage that could be traced all the way back to the White House.

In July 2003, Valerie Plame was exposed as an undercover CIA operative specializing in weapons of mass destruction in retaliation for her husband’s criticism of George Bush’s public statement that Sadaam Hussein had acquired weapons-grade uranium from the African nation of Niger. The president’s insistence that the Iraqi regime was in possession of weapons of mass destruction was a key reason for the U.S.-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq, and the White House did not react positively to anybody who would not back this claim.

Valerie’s husband was Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador who was asked to investigate the claims of Sadaam Hussein’s nuclear acquisition. He found the theories highly improbable for numerous reasons and delivered an honest report to the CIA and other agencies in February 2002. In July 2003, Wilson wrote an opinion piece criticizing the Bush administration for ignoring his findings and even suggested that the war had been conducted under false pretenses.

Just days later, The Washington Post published an article revealing Valerie Plume’s identity, deliberately putting her contacts, family, and friends at risk as well as effectively ending her career. Wilson charged that this was direct retaliation for his revelations. In July 2006, Plame unsuccessfully sued Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Lewis Libby, and Richard Armitage, accusing them and other White House officials of conspiring to destroy her career.[5]

5 The Iraq War Logs (Wikileaks)

In October 2010, Wikileaks published almost 400,000 U.S. Army field reports and shared them with numerous international media organizations around the world. It was the largest ever leak of military information. They detailed thousands of uninvestigated accounts of torture and murder of civilians by U.S. and UK troops during the invasion of Iraq between 2004 and 2009.

Despite insistence from both the British and American governments that statistics on civilian deaths were not recorded, the report also showed that at least 66,081 innocent people lost their lives during the campaign. In addition, they detailed accounts of detainee torture and execution that were never investigated.

The Pentagon reacted by condemning the leak, claiming that the information endangered serving troops and gave the enemy valuable insight into the military’s standard operating procedures. Wikileaks responded by stating that they deleted all the names from the documents that might result in reprisals and that the public had a right to know the full extent of both nations’ involvement in the war.[6]

4 Edward Snowden’s NSA Leak

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: ‘I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things’

On May 20, 2013, Edward Snowden arrived in Hong Kong to begin a more turbulent and paranoid life. The former CIA technical assistant revealed himself to be the source of a leak to The Guardian newspaper in the UK about the surveillance techniques employed by the NSA to spy on people across the globe.

The U.S. government unsealed charges of espionage against Snowden in July later that year. They revoked his passport before he flew to Russia, where he has been living ever since, finally being granted permanent residency in 2020.

The information that Snowden leaked caused international controversy, with revelations that politicians from America’s allied countries were also spied on, as well as the mass surveillance techniques employed against all U.S. citizens through metadata acquired from numerous internet and phone companies.[7]

3 Shadow Brokers

The Shadow Brokers (Part One: Auction)

In 2017, a mysterious group called the Shadow Brokers began auctioning off hacking tools, classified documents, malware, and various other “cyber weapons” to the highest bidder. The online auction resulted from a hack that had targeted Equation Group, an elite hacking team that was operated by the NSA. In response to the hack and auction, Wikileaks announced they had also gained access to everything being sold off and decided to publish all the information and tools they had at their disposal.

While this hack and data leak didn’t garner as much media attention as Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing or previous military leaks regarding Afghanistan and Iraq, the far-reaching consequences of this data breach are still being played out all over the world today. The publication of this information and the widespread availability of these cyber weapons have led to these tools being used extensively by countries including China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea in major ransomware attacks like WannaCry and NotPetya, as well as a cyberattack that held the city of Baltimore hostage for weeks.[8]

2 The Panama Papers

How the Panama Papers journalists broke the biggest leak in history | Gerard Ryle

In 2016, an unidentified insider leaked millions of internal documents that exposed a global network of hundreds of politicians and public officials who had done business with former Panamanian offshore law firm and corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca. Public figures from more than 50 countries were accused of corruption and money laundering. The revelations also led to the resignation of the President of Iceland after he was exposed in a dramatic TV interview.

Other high-profile figures implicated in the leak included the President of Ukraine, the King of Saudi Arabia, the President of Argentina, the Prime Minister of Australia, and more than seven other serving or former heads of state. Also exposed were several close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who were shown to be running a multi-billion dollar money-laundering ring.

The implications of the Panama Papers are still being deciphered today, as the sheer mass of data that was leaked means that it will take years before all of the connections and links between various dummy companies can be fully understood.[9]

1 The Pandora Papers

Pandora Papers (full documentary) | FRONTLINE

The Pandora Papers’ similarity to the Panama Papers goes much deeper than just the name. Both leaks were investigated and released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. And both sets of documents concern shell companies that are used by the rich and powerful to acquire properties and hide movements of vast sums of money using offshore tax-havens.

The Pandora Papers consist of a collection of nearly 12 million files published in October 2021. Numerous world leaders and public figures were again implicated in the disclosed papers, including King Abdullah of Jordan, the Qatari ruling family, the Czech Prime Minister, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Russian President Vladimir Putin (again) as well as many others.

In similar techniques described in the Panama Papers, enormous amounts of money were moved around the world, often for property acquisitions, in a way that was designed to avoid paying tax while at the same time hiding the identities of those behind the transactions. Despite this practice itself not being illegal, it is often used as a way to disguise illegal gains by criminal gangs and provides anonymity that is incredibly difficult for any law enforcement groups to investigate.

Again, like the Panama Papers, the true extent of the web of information to piece together from the millions of leaked documents will take many years to fully realize. The unfortunate conclusion of the similarities to the leak of 2016 is that the practice of illegally obtaining and moving unregulated and untaxed money by the super-rich continues unabated while regular, hard-working people are forced to play by the rules and pay taxes under the law of the country in which they reside.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen