On Friday, news organizations realized something quite remarkable: A trove of 100 secret US military and intelligence documents had been posted in the far-flung corners of the internet.
The files reveal closely held information about US operations, like a suggestion there are up to 100 NATO special operations officials in Ukraine, and details about casualty counts for both Russia and Ukraine. They indicate that the US has infiltrated Russian intelligence groups and has inside knowledge of hacking attempts on a Canadian pipeline. And they show in some detail what the US has gleaned from spying on partners such as Israel and South Korea.
And most bizarrely, the documents surfaced more than a month earlier on anonymous, decentralized web forums dedicated to gaming, like a Discord channel devoted to Minecraft and after that on 4chan.
The classified files emerged as recently photographed folded documents that may have appeared as daily briefings for the military’s top leaders. If they are authentic, the documents represent a major intelligence breach and offer insights into the US role in defending Ukraine from Russia’s invasion and other major geopolitical arenas.
For now, the documents’ ambiguous provenance, the somewhat surprising platform on which they were first posted, the signs that at least several were doctored, and the inability to independently verify them means it’s difficult to draw sweeping conclusions. The motive for the documents’ publication is obscured by the jokey online exchanges in which they were shared.
But the US government seems to be treating the documents as legitimate. The Justice Department opened an investigation into the leaks, the Defense Department and several other government agencies are together assessing any impact on national security, and Pentagon leaders are angry and scrambling to undo the damage.
Gavin Wilde, a Carnegie Endowment expert who previously worked in the White House and at the National Security Agency, says the documents expose the contradiction between the incredible intelligence-gathering capacity of US agencies and their apparent sloppiness in handling sensitive information. “It’s just the latest indication that the intelligence bureaucracy is both remarkably adept and remarkably inept in this new misinformation environment,” he told me. “The way we think about counterintelligence clearly needs to be more coherent.”
“That’s a paradox to me,” Wilde continued, “that on one hand, these documents appear to show an intelligence community that excels at what it’s charged with doing, while being kind of catastrophically inept at another aspect of what it’s supposed to do. … It really vexes me that it took over a month for them to gain popular notice.”
What the leaks reveal
The documents, according to several former officials I spoke with, seem to be photographed from a briefing book for a high-level US military leader and perhaps shared with allies. The number of individuals who might have access to such documents, these sources speculated, might number into the hundreds or even low thousands. What was most noteworthy is the scope of the information, which includes a variety of maps that show Ukrainian and Russian positions and in-depth intelligence reports.
“The documents appear — and I want to emphasize appear — to potentially reveal sources and methods,” says Glenn Gerstell, who served as general counsel of the National Security Agency from 2015 to 2020 and now works as an adviser to the consulting firm Beacon Global Strategies.
This may compromise the US’s ability, for example, to spy on Russia.
The breadth and depth of the documents are also important. The documents are current — dated in late February or early March of this year — and cover a wide range of topics, beyond just Ukraine. While 100 documents is a lot, it’s not near the scale of the leaks published by Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden. Asked if the leak was contained or whether more files were out there, White House spokesperson John Kirby said, “We don’t know. We truly don’t.”
Among other surprising findings, the documents reveal the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad supported protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he pushed for a major judicial overhaul in the country. The Washington Post cites a document that says Mossad leaders “advocated for Mossad officials and Israeli citizens to protest the new Israeli Government’s proposed judicial reforms, including several explicit calls to action that decried the Israeli Government, according to signals intelligence.” Israel has not provided weapons to Ukraine, and a document from February 2023 shows “scenarios that could drive Jerusalem to provide lethal aid” to Ukraine.
The leaked files offer new details about personnel losses in the Russia-Ukraine war, which both sides of the conflict have tried to keep secret. The New York Times says, “One document reports the Russians have suffered 189,500 to 223,000 casualties, including up to 43,000 killed in action,” while another notes that “as of February, Ukraine had suffered 124,500 to 131,000 casualties, with up to 17,500 killed in action.” Pro-Russia accounts on the social media platform Telegram doctored some of those casualty numbers before recirculating the documents.
Several maps show detailed troop movements, the state of Ukrainian and Russian weaponry, and even the “Mud-Frozen Ground Timeline,” by month, which could be helpful in assessing the path of tanks on the battlefield. Some of that information may already be outdated, but given the dates printed on the files, it may give Russia and other US adversaries the ability to reverse-engineer the sources of US intelligence.
“This has the real potential for actually genuinely hurting national security,” says Gerstell. “In prior leaks, people said that, but what they really meant was it was politically embarrassing or awkward or hurt our relationships with allies. And this is a little different.”
Why did these documents get leaked, and what happens now?
It’s not at all clear who the source of the leak might be — a disgruntled US civilian or uniformed official? Someone simply trying to win an argument online? The timing might imply someone who is trying to shape the US and NATO response to an imminent Ukrainian counteroffensive. But that could be meant to box in the Western response to push for unmitigated support, or to embarrass the US, or to show the depth of US assistance to Ukraine on the ground.
Whatever the content of the files, the leak itself is likely to be favorable to Russian President Vladimir Putin in at least two regards: netting a propaganda win and showing valuable insights into how US agencies work.
Though some analysts have argued that its origin is Russian intelligence, it’s not clear why they would want to blow up such a goldmine of a source and publicize inside information. And the hastiness of the files being posted on seemingly arbitrary forums suggests it’s not an influence operation or malevolent intelligence agency. “I cannot comment on this in any way. You and I know that there is in fact a tendency to always blame everything on Russia,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.
The Biden administration will now be racing to ensure that the leak is plugged. That may result in a major tightening of access, and probably in some cases a blanket shutdown of certain intelligence sharing, perhaps to the detriment of US policymaking as different channels get more siloed. “It will definitely kick off another cycle of caution, where everybody kind of starts to lock things down and start to reassess how much they’re comfortable sharing with each other,” Wilde told me.
In a statement, Discord said that they were cooperating with the investigation and could not provide any additional details.
“This is information that has no business in the public domain,” Kirby told reporters from the White House lectern. “It has no business, if you don’t mind me saying, on the front pages of newspapers or on television. It is not intended for public consumption, and it should not be out there.”
But now that it is out there, it reveals the very human aspects of the high-tech wars the US is engaged in. For all of the advanced weaponry the US is giving Ukraine, this is a war between humans, and when you have a lot of humans with access to highly secret information, there is always the potential for a breach. People make mistakes, and they apparently love to show off their access in posts on platforms like Discord.