Who was the source? What’s the damage? Which ones are doctored? What was the motive? Will there be more?
These are some of the questions that officials in Washington are trying to answer as they look to stem the impact of an apparent leak of a trove of classified Pentagon documents containing intelligence about Russia’s war in Ukraine and U.S. allies that surfaced online in recent weeks.
So far, officials don’t seem to know a whole lot. White House national security spokesman John Kirby wouldn’t even confirm the validity of the all documents during a Monday briefing — noting that in some cases they appeared to have been altered — but he said the information “has no business in the public domain.”
“We don’t know what’s out there,” Kirby said from the White House podium. “We don’t know who is responsible for this, and we don’t know if they have more that they intend to post.”
The leak could have serious implications for U.S. intelligence efforts and has already shown signs of rattling some allies. Kirby told reporters that U.S. officials have been in touch with relevant partners, without specifying which countries. South Korea downplayed reports about a document showing the U.S. eavesdropping on Seoul, while Israel denied a claim in the leaked files that the country’s foreign intelligence service encouraged officials to engage in anti-government protests. Other documents pointed to gaps in Ukraine’s military readiness.
“You never want your enemies to know what you know. But I’m not sure how much of this is real or deception,” retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who served as commanding general of the U.S. Army Europe, told me. “If the report of Ukraine running out of air/missile defense munitions is accurate, then we need to get them the ability to deny sanctuary for Russian navy and air force and drone launches in Crimea,” he added.
An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted Tuesday that “we need less contemplation on ‘leaks’ and more long-range weapons in order to properly end the war.”
The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation and the Pentagon is also reviewing the leak, which was publicized last week when the New York Times reported that the documents had surfaced on social media sites.
The investigative group Bellingcat found, however, that some of the documents surfaced on the platform Discord more than a month ago.
“No one noticed them as they were in relatively obscure Discord servers — these aren’t publicly indexed resources, like Telegram and 4chan, where they later appeared. And honestly, people probably didn’t think they were real.” Aric Toler, Bellingcat’s director of training and research, told me.
The leak comes at an awkward time for President Biden, who is departing later today for a trip to the United Kingdom and Ireland. Kirby wouldn’t say whether he expected the issue to come up at a meeting between Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Multiple congressional committees with jurisdiction over the Pentagon and intelligence community have requested briefings. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio appeared on CNN Monday afternoon and said he was concerned about the potential impact on Ukraine’s preparations for a counteroffensive, but added the U.S. and Ukraine have the flexibility to adjust plans.
“These documents are static, they’re a picture of a specific time,” Turner said. “Both the United States and Ukraine have the ability to modify what they’re doing and how they’re approaching this issue.”
Turner said the fact the documents were photographed and then put on the internet could help officials track down the culprit.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala. in a statement called the reports “incredibly concerning” and said the panel “is actively seeking answers from the Department of Defense.” A spokesperson for the Senate Armed Services Committee said Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I. is “tracking this issue closely,” adding that the committee “expects to be fully briefed on the Pentagon’s investigation as it proceeds.”
- What is Discord? The Wall Street Journal takes a look at the social media platform popular with video gamers that has drawn attention due to the leak.
- One of the documents posted to Discord said that Egypt planned to secretly supply as many as 40,000 rockets to Russia, the Washington Post reported. A U.S. official told the Post that the government has not seen evidence Egypt went through with the plans.
- A senior U.S. official told the New York Times that “hundreds, if not thousands” of officials would have had security clearances necessary to gain access to the documents posted online.