In recent weeks, a series of documents, seemingly containing highly classified Pentagon intelligence related to the Russia-Ukraine War and information on US allies, have been released online.
While the United States media has reported on the apparent leak feverishly, officials are treading a careful line while responding. Pentagon spokesman Chris Meagher said that the photos circulating “appear to show documents similar in format” to those provided to senior military leaders, but stressed that defense department staff were still assessing their authenticity.
Several officials are also that at least a few of the documents appear to be doctored, raising concerns that they could feed misinformation campaigns. On Monday, Meagher stated that the documents could pose a very serious threat to national security.
While further details continue to emerge, it is apparent that the situation has rocked the US administration, as it rushes to assess and contain the extent of any data breach in the Pentagon.
The First Appearance of the Documents
The documents seem to have emerged first in pictures posted on Discord, a popular gaming social media platform, according to Bellingcat, an investigative website.
The pictures reveal creased documents placed on top of magazines and other household items. Former officials who reviewed the pictures told the New York Times they were taken from a secure location in a pocket since they appear to have been folded.
Bellingcat traced the leak to a now-defunct Discord server. Further research suggested that the documents had already emerged on social media in March based on some documents that were dated. Bellingcat also said it had seen evidence some of the documents were posted as far back as January on Discord.
The pictures showcased documents with classified markings. Certain documents were labeled “top secret”, the highest level of classification, and seemed to be briefing slides by the US military’s Chief of Staff.
According to the New York Times, some documents also contain the NOFORN or “Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals” marking, which meant that they could not be shared with foreign intelligence agencies, which includes Five Eyes, a collection of spy agencies in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
The pictures spread from Discord to 4chan, an online image board, before appearing on other mainstream social media platforms, according to Bellingcat.
Possible Sources of the Leak
While the US Department of Justice has launched an investigation, no official information has been released on a possible leaker.
Based on the geographical breadth of information and the NOFORN classification in the documents, there is speculation that the leaker is American, while two US officials told the Reuters news agency that the possibility of documents being altered to hide their origin was not ruled out.
Another official told Reuters that the investigators had four or five theories, ranging from a disgruntled employee to an inside threat looking to undermine US national security interests.
On Tuesday, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin stated that they will continue to investigate and turn over every rock until they find the source and extent of the Pentagon leaks.
Later that day, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns, in a speech from Texas Rice University, said that the ongoing investigations for the source of leaks were quite intense.
The Authenticity of the Documents
The Pentagon, on Sunday, stated that some of the documents “appear to contain sensitive and highly classified material”. However, the defense department has steered clear of the authenticity of the documents, while consistently stressing that a few of the documents have been doctored.
One of the papers showed that the estimates of Russian military personnel deaths in Ukraine are significantly lower than that confirmed by the US. On Monday, Meagher told reporters that there have been necessary steps to take a closer look at how this information is distributed and to whom. He also stated that the disclosure of such sensitive information can have tremendous implications, not only for national security but could also lead to people losing their lives.
US National Security Council spokesperson, John Kirby acknowledged that the administration is clueless about the emergence of more pictures or documents in the coming days.
The Contents of the Documents and Countries Involved
The documents seem to disclose extensive information, including sensitive information about the Russia-Ukraine War and US eavesdropping on its allies, including Israel and South Korea.
Russia – The Pentagon documents reveal that the US penetrated much more than previously understood into Russian military forces and the Wagner Group, a mercenary organization.
The details about the internal planning of Russia’s military intelligence agency, GRU were also referenced in the documents. Most of the information gathered on Russian troop movements was through human sources who are now possibly at risk.
Ukraine – If the Pentagon documents are proven authentic, the leaks show that the US monitored Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s calls with military and defense officials, using signals intelligence.
United Arab Emirates – Another document shows that the US spies caught Russian intelligence officers boasting of having convinced UAE to work together against the UK and US intelligence agencies. However, the Emirati government dismissed the accusation of the UAE deepening its ties with Russian intelligence as “categorically false”.
Egypt – One more leaked document shows that Egypt was planning to supply Russia with munitions and rockets. The paper was dated February 17 and claimed to summarise conversations between President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and a few senior Egyptian military officials.
Israel – A document, that appears to be a CIA intelligence update, dated March 1, indicated that Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, in a bid to weaken the independence of the judiciary, was encouraging its officers to take part in protests against their government’s plans. Israel denied any involvement of Mossad in the anti-government protests.
South Korea – Another document seemingly indicated that the US spied on South Korea, but South Korean officials dismissed the claims saying that the details of the document are untrue and altered.
It also provided details of alleged internal discussions between top aides to the South Korean President that suggest that the US exerted pressure on Seoul to help supply the US with artillery shells, which could then be transported to Ukraine.