As published by ABC News.
Highly classified military and intelligence documents that appeared online, with details ranging from Ukraine’s air defences to Israel’s Mossad spy agency, have US officials scrambling to identify the leak’s source.
- US allies including Australia have expressed concerns over the leak
- Some documents appear altered to lessen Russian losses in Ukraine
- This is the most substantial leak of US classified material since the 2013 WikiLeaks release
Officials say the breadth of topics addressed in the documents, which touch on the war in Ukraine, China, the Middle East, and Africa, suggest they were leaked by an American rather than an ally.
“The focus now is on this being a US leak, as many of the documents were only in US hands,” Michael Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official, told Reuters.
The US Department of Defense said an inter-agency effort is assessing the impact that leaked intelligence documents could have on US national security and on its allies and partners.
“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,” the department said in a statement.
While the investigation is in its early stages US officials say those running it have not ruled out the possibility that pro-Russian elements were behind the leak, which is seen as one of the most serious security breaches since more than 700,000 documents, videos, and diplomatic cables appeared on the WikiLeaks website in 2013.
Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at ANU, John Blaxland said there were “strong indications” the leak was an “attempt by Russia to deflect attention, to upset battle plans for the expected Ukrainian offensive”.
“It is worrying that this kind of detail about Ukrainian vulnerabilities is being put in these reports and is out there, but a good Russian intelligence analyst would already be aware of these limitations,” he told the ABC.
In an emailed statement to the ABC regarding the leak the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade expressed the Australian government’s concerns over the disclosure of US classified information.
“We are pleased the US Department of Justice has acted quickly in announcing an investigation. The Australian Government is seeking further information on this matter and is unable to provide further comment at this stage.”
Following the disclosure of the leak, Reuters has reviewed more than 50 documents labelled Secret and Top Secret that first appeared last month on social media websites, beginning with Discord and 4Chan.
While some of the documents were posted weeks ago, their existence was first reported on Friday by the New York Times.
Reuters has not independently verified the authenticity of the documents. Some giving battlefield casualty estimates from Ukraine appeared to have been altered to minimise Russian losses. It is not clear why at least one is marked unclassified but includes top secret information. Some documents are marked NOFORN, meaning they cannot be released to foreign nationals.
It has not been ruled out that the documents may have been doctored to mislead investigators as to their origin or to disseminate false information that may harm US security interests.
One document, dated February 23 and marked Secret, outlines in detail how Ukraine’s S-300 air defence systems would be depleted by May 2 at the current usage rate.
Professor Blaxland argued some of the information, while obviously classified, was not as critical as some would think.
“In Australia we have a classification called ‘Australian Eyes Only’ — it’s usually quite strictly reserved for things that are genuinely not for sharing,” he said.
“The United States has a default to ‘NOFORN’ — which is ‘Not For Foreign Nationals’ which is their equivalent of our ‘AUSTEO’ classification.
“Unfortunately, that gets stamped on basically everything they produce.”
US allies the subject of leaks
Another document, marked Top Secret and from a CIA Intel update from March 1, says the Mossad intelligence agency was encouraging protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to tighten controls on the Supreme Court.
The document said the US learned this through signals intelligence, suggesting the United States had been spying on one of its most important allies in the Middle East.
In a statement, Mr Netanyahu’s office described the assertion as “mendacious and without any foundation whatsoever”.
Another document gave details of internal discussions among senior South Korean officials about US pressure on Seoul to help supply weapons to Ukraine, and its policy of not doing so.
The office of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said on Monday that fact checks on the documents are a priority and that it would request the US to take “appropriate” steps after confirming details.
Mr Yoon’s office said the possibility that the documents were fabricated or a product of third-party interference cannot be ruled out, warning any attempts to “disrupt the alliance would face repercussions”.
Some politicians of South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party expressed “strong regret” over the spying allegations, calling them a clear violation of national sovereignty and a major security failure of the Yoon administration.
“We strongly demand a thorough investigation and urge that similar incidents do not occur,” they said in a joint statement.
The Pentagon has not addressed the contents of any specific documents, including the apparent surveillance of allies.
Two US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while there was concern about the leak at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies, the documents showed a snapshot in time from more than a month ago, rather than more recent assessments.
The two officials said the military and intelligence agencies were looking at their processes for how widely some the intelligence is shared internally.
Officials are looking at what motivations a US official or a group of officials would have in leaking such sensitive information, said one of the officials who spoke to Reuters.
The official said investigators were looking at four or five theories, from a disgruntled employee to an insider threat who actively wanted to undermine US national security interests.
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