Here’s What We Know About The Pentagon’s Classified Document Leak So Far

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • The Pentagon and Justice Department are investigating the source of apparently classified documents relating to the war in Ukraine and U.S. global intelligence operations, which leaked on social media recently.
  • The documents disclose weaknesses in Ukrainian air defense networks, as well as information and methods used to glean that information from the Russian military and U.S. spying efforts on allies.
  • “The Department of Defense continues to review and assess the validity of the photographed documents that are circulating on social media sites and that appear to contain sensitive and highly classified material,” Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said.

The Pentagon and Justice Department are investigating how a trove of classified intelligence documents containing highly sensitive information relating to the war in Ukraine and America’s global spying operations have leaked online.

The leaked documents, which appeared online over the last few months, could number up to 100 in total, although the Pentagon has verified only a handful and around 40 may have been lost after users of Discord and Telegram, where the documents seem to have initially surfaced, deleted posts or servers, according to The Wall Street Journal. Those that have been confirmed so far disclose weaknesses in Ukrainian air defense networks, NATO plans to rebuild Ukraine’s military, the position of Ukrainian troops and U.S. spying efforts on allies, as well as shedding light on the degree to which U.S. intelligence has penetrated Russian information defense agencies, CNN reported.

They could have an untold impact on the course of the war as Ukraine completes preparations for a highly anticipated counteroffensive, according to media reports, citing officials.

“The Department of Defense continues to review and assess the validity of the photographed documents that are circulating on social media sites and that appear to contain sensitive and highly classified material,” Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said in an emailed statement to reporters. “An interagency effort has been stood up, focused on assessing the impact these photographed documents could have on U.S. national security and on our Allies and partners.”

DOJ has opened a criminal investigation into the matter, according to CNN.

A CIA spokesperson told the WSJ it is aware of the documents and looking into the matter.

The documents reveal that U.S. intelligence has compromised Russia’s Defense Ministry and the Wagner private military company, according to CNN. The U.S. has been able to ascertain Russian troop disposition and weapons capabilities, as well as construct highly detailed attack plans based on information from human sources, intercepted communications and advanced satellite technology unknown to the civilian realm, according to CNN and The Washington Post.

For example, the documents expose Russia’s combat strategy to counter NATO-provided battle tanks by establishing long, medium and short-range fire zones, each covered by a different constellation of weapons and unit types, according to CNN.

One document appears to suggest that the U.S. intercepted electronic communications from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, noting a comment from the president about “striking Russian deployment locations in Russia’s Rostov Oblast,” CNN reported.

One undated document tallies up a contingent of roughly 97 special operations personnel from NATO countries including the U.S., Great Britain, France, Latvia and the Netherlands, with 14 personnel from the U.S., operating in Ukraine. NATO countries have repeatedly denied that they have combat personnel on the ground in Ukraine.

“There are no French forces engaged in operation in Ukraine,” a spokesperson for the minister of the armed forces, Sébastien Lecornu, told The Guardian. “The documents cited do not come from the French armies. We do not comment on documents whose source is uncertain.”

Another describes a conversation between two South Korean national security officials responding to U.S. pressure to provide ammunition to Ukraine, CNN reported. One proposes circumventing existing policy against providing a warring country with lethal aid by routing it through Poland — alarming officials and prompting Seoul to confront Washington about the disclosure.

Others describe how Israel could warm up to the prospect of providing lethal aid to Ukraine under “increased US pressure or a perceived degradation” in Israel-Russia relations and describe U.S. impressions of partners’ strategies to support Ukraine, CNN reported.

Unrelated to Ukraine, another document contains an assessment that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency actively inflamed protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reform that rocked the country in recent weeks.

The Prime Minister’s office called the report “mendacious and without any foundation whatsoever.”

“The Mossad and its senior officials did not – and do not – encourage agency personnel to join the demonstrations against the government, political demonstrations or any political activity,” the statement said.

U.S. officials communicated with allies and partners and have informed relevant elements of Congress about the apparent breach, Singh said in the emailed statement.

Countries implicated in the document leaks have scrambled to do damage control in recent days.

“We expect the US to share a damage assessment with us in the coming days, but we cannot wait for their assessment. Right now we are doing our own,” an official from a Five Eyes country told CNN.

“We are poring over these documents to figure out if any of the intelligence originated from our collection,” the official added.

Many of the documents appear among those prepared over the winter for briefing Gen. Mark Milley, the chief military adviser to President Biden, and other senior military officers, one defense official told the Post.

Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the Ukrainian president’s office, called the documents a Russian disinformation operation intended to divert attention away from war planning and sow discord among allies in a Telegram post on April 8.

The full scope of the leak’s impact on the Ukraine war remains to be seen, but they could be the most damaging to U.S. intelligence since the WikiLeaks breach in 2013, Reuters reported. Many documents, if authentic, disclose information that Russia could exploit to thwart Ukraine’s upcoming counteroffensive.

The leaks are a “nightmare for Five Eyes,” a senior intelligence official told The New York Times, referring to the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada who participate in a broad intelligence sharing agreement. The NYT first reported on the leaks Friday.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has received multiple updates on the leaks and has convened senior leaders to discuss the issue, Pentagon spokesman Chris Meagher told Reuters.

U.S. officials initially suspected Russian elements behind the leaks, according to Reuters, after two different versions of the same document describing personnel losses in Ukraine surfaced online Wednesday.

Of six images that appeared to show classified documents, one posted on a pro-Russian Telegram channel contained a crude alteration from a photo published on the 4Chan image sharing platform earlier, halving the number of estimated Russian casualties and inflating Ukrainian losses, according to research from Bellingcat, an open source investigations outlet. Poor resolution, inconsistent font and character size and slightly skewed text alignment on the pro-Russian version suggested tampering.

However, the leaks date back even earlier, possibly as far back as January, to servers on Discord messaging platform popular with gamers, according to Bellingcat.

On March 4, a user uploaded 10 documents on Ukraine bearing “Top Secret” markings to a Discord server titled “Minecraft Earth Map” in an effort to win an argument with another user, Bellingcat found. “Here, have some leaked documents,” the user said, claiming that the documents were obtained from a different server focused on a Filipino celebrity.

A user named “Lucca” posted a large trove of more than 30 apparently sensitive documents on a now-deleted Discord server called “WowMao” on March 1 and 2, according to Bellingcat. The same user posted dozens of other documents related to Ukraine prior to that, but their contents are unclear as the posts were purged on Friday.

Members of the WowMao community directed Bellingcat researchers to yet another server, Thug Shaker Central, alleged to contain dozens or even hundreds of similar documents, included one posted Jan. 13, former users of the now-deleted Thug Shaker server told Bellingcat.

The documents appear to be printed and at one point folded in half, then later unfolded and photographed against various backgrounds where everyday items, such as plastic zipper bags and Gorilla Glue, are visible, Bellingcat found, suggesting the leaker printed and concealed the documents before photographing them in a secure location.

Officials from multiple countries said one of the mysteries surrounding the leak is how many of the documents existed in public spaces for so long before open source researchers and then mainstream media picked up on them, according to The Washington Post.

Many of the documents are labeled Top Secret or NOFORN, a designation restricting their release to foreign nationals, according to Reuters. Some are marked J2, suggesting they are products of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’ intelligence department and could be briefing materials, CNN reported. Nevertheless, hundreds of individuals across the U.S. government and among intelligence sharing partners could have access to the content at a given point in time, according to CNN.

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