Classified documents that appeared online, with details ranging from Ukraine’s air defenses to Israel’s Mossad spy agency, have U.S. officials scrambling to identify the leak’s source, with some experts saying it could be an American.
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 may have been leaked by an American rather than an ally.
‘The focus now is on this being a U.S. leak, as many of the documents were only in U.S. hands,’ Michael Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official, told Reuters in an interview.
The authenticity of the documents is still in doubt as experts suggest they could have been altered or used as a misinformation campaign to suit Russia’s agenda. They pointed to how some of the documents giving battlefield casualty estimates from Ukraine were altered to minimize Russian losses.
An initial batch of documents labeled ‘Secret’ and ‘Top Secret’ – reportedly containing charts on the war in Ukraine as well as the strengths of different battalions – first circulated on Twitter and Russian Telegram channels last month.
And a further batch of documents of more than 100 Pentagon documents – this time also detailing US national security interests pertaining to areas including China and Israel’s Mossad spy agency – was being shared on Twitter on Friday, the New York Times reported.
Classified documents that appeared online, with details ranging from Ukraine’s air defenses to Israel’s Mossad spy agency, have U.S. officials scrambling to identify the leak’s source, with some experts saying it could be an American. Pictured: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrives for meetings at the Pentagon on March 30
A Ukrainian serviceman fires a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) from a launcher during a training exercise in the Donetsk region on April 7
One of the leaked Western documents regarding the Ukraine – Russia war
The Justice Department has now launched a criminal investigation into the possible release of the Top Secret documents, which mostly pertain to the state of the Ukraine war.
Two U.S. officials told Reuters on Sunday that they have not ruled out that the documents may have been doctored to mislead investigators as to their origin or to disseminate false information that may harm U.S. security interests.
Some inaccuracies – including estimates of Russian troops deaths that are significantly lower than numbers publicly stated by U.S. officials – have led some to question the documents’ authenticity.
‘It is very important to remember that in recent decades, the Russian special services’ most successful operations have been taking place in Photoshop,’ Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate, said on Ukrainian TV.
‘From a preliminary analysis of these materials, we see false, distorted figures on losses on both sides, with part of the information collected from open sources.’
In a statement on Sunday, the Pentagon said it was reviewing the validity of the photographed documents that ‘appear to contain sensitive and highly classified material.’
Two U.S. defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the Pentagon was examining procedures governing how widely some of the most sensitive U.S. secrets are shared.
Some of the documents, one of the officials said, would most likely have been available to thousands of people with U.S. and allied government security clearances despite being highly sensitive, as the information directly affected those countries.
The Pentagon on Sunday said in a statement that an interagency effort was assessing the impact the photographed documents could have on U.S. national security as well as that of close American allies, a standard procedure known as ‘damage assessment’ for leaks of classified information.
Ukrainian servicemen stand in a trench near their position near the town of Bakhmut, Donetsk region on April 8
The first official said the number of people who had access to the documents underscores that sensitive information was perhaps being shared too widely with personnel who might not require the level of detail some of the documents contained.
‘The Pentagon has needed to curtail the unbridled access to some of the most sensitive intel when they’ve (got) no justifiable reason to have it,’ the first official said.
READ MORE: Leaked Pentagon documents show spies are deeply ingrained in Russian intelligence services and Putin’s army is ravaged after a year of fighting
The two officials said further that although the leaks were highly concerning, many of them provided only snapshots of time in February and March – when they were dated – but did not appear to disclose anything about future operations.
Although the release of documents appears to be the most serious public leak of classified information in years, officials say it so far does not reach the scale and scope of the 700,000 documents, videos and diplomatic cables that appeared on the WikiLeaks website in 2013.
One of the documents, dated February 23 and marked ‘Secret,’ outlines in detail how Ukraine’s S-300 air defense systems would be depleted by May 2 at the current usage rate.
Such closely guarded information could be of use to Russian forces, and Ukraine said its president and top security officials met on Friday to discuss ways to prevent 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 U.S. 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 on Sunday, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. to take ‘appropriate’ steps after confirming details.
These are two of the leaked documents which have been shared by the New York Times
This document appears to show the state of Ukraine’s air defenses in February, and in May when it is anticipated they’ll be badly depleted
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 lawmakers 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,’ the lawmakers said in a joint statement.
The Pentagon has not addressed the contents of any specific documents, including the apparent surveillance of allies.
Officials are looking at what motivations a U.S. 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 U.S. national security interests.
Daniel Hoffman, a former senior CIA undercover officer, said that given past activities of Moscow’s intelligence agencies, it was ‘highly likely’ that Russian operatives posted documents related to Ukraine as part of a Russian disinformation operation.
He said such operations – meant to sow confusion, if not discord, among Russia’s adversaries – were a ‘classic’ practice of Russian spy services to leak authentic documents in which they have inserted false information.
The aim, he said, appeared to be to drive a wedge between Ukraine and the United States, Kyiv’s largest provider of military support.
Some national security experts and U.S. officials say they currently suspect that the leaker could be American, given the breadth of topics covered by the documents, but they do not rule out pro-Russian actors. More theories could develop as the investigation progresses, they said.
The Kremlin and the Russian embassy did not respond to a request for comment about whether it was involved in the leak.
Ukraine said its president and top security officials met on Friday to discuss ways to prevent leaks.
The White House has declined to discuss publicly who might be responsible for the breach, and has referred all questions about the leak to the Pentagon. The Pentagon said that over the weekend, U.S. officials spoke with allies and had notified the relevant congressional committee about the leak.
‘I’m deeply troubled by the possible extent and nature of the information exposed and expect to be fully briefed in the days to come,’ said Representative Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger who sits on the U.S. House of Representatives intelligence and foreign relations committees.