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US intelligence leak: What we know so far

Thomas Latschan
April 14, 2023

More than 50 Pentagon documents, some classified as secret, have recently surfaced online. They deal with various geopolitically significant developments — and have put the US government in an uncomfortable position.

Cartoon shows a worried Statue of Liberty holding a hand over a leaking hole in a pipeline marked "USA - SECRET."
The apparent US data breach has been described as the most serious since Wikileaks in 2013. (Cartoon: Sergey Elkin)Image: DW

A summary of what we know so far.

How did the documents find their way online?

Some of the papers were initially circulated in early March on Discord, a social platform that is popular mostly among gamers. One server on which the data first appeared was actually focused on the popular computer game Minecraft, while another was dedicated to a Filipino YouTube star. They have since been shut down. The investigative website Bellingcat contacted members of the Discord community, who said that many more documents had been published on other Discord servers in recent months. These claims could not be verified, however, as they have also since been shut down.

Several dozen documents are now in the public domain after finding their way from Discord onto 4chan, a platform where photos can be shared anonymously, and without prior registration.  From there, they were shared on Twitter and on Telegram channels — especially pro-Russian ones. It wasn't until about a month after their initial publication on Discord that media outlets all over the world became aware of the leaked documents.

What is in the documents?

The papers originated with the US Department of Defense, and they also include reports from various secret services such as the CIA or the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the central agency for cartographical analysis and reconnaissance. They provide an insight not only into how the United States gathers its intelligence, but also into its views about various global geostrategic developments.

Ukraine intel leaks: 'The Russians already knew all this'

Russia/Ukraine: The papers comprise details about the course of the war in eastern Ukraine that are particularly explosive. They include maps of the Bakhmut and Kharkiv regions, as well as a delivery timetable for Western munitions to Ukraine. According to these documents, Ukraine's armed forces seem to be considerably weaker than has so far been claimed, and Washington appears to be worried that Ukraine would be unable to repel a renewed Russian offensive. There is talk of gaps in Ukrainian air defenses, and a shortage of ammunition is anticipated as early as May. However, the documents also claim that the US has infiltrated the Russian military and the paramilitary Wagner Group at the highest level, in order to inform Kyiv as early as possible about any Russian plans of attack.

The leaked papers also outline how far the war in Ukraine would have to escalate in order for China to be prepared to supply Moscow with weapons. Allegedly, it would do so as soon as Ukraine carried out an attack on Russian soil. Another document reports that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi supposedly held discussions with top-level military officials in February about supplying Russia with artillery shells and ammunition — in strictest secrecy, in order to "avoid problems with the West."

The Wagner Group is also said to have asked sources in Turkey to supply weapons and equipment for its activities in Ukraine and Mali, though it is unclear to what extent the Turkish government would have been aware of this. A request from the US apparently resulted in a major dispute in South Korea about supplying artillery munitions to Ukraine. Until now, Seoul has not provided Kyiv with any military support.

US President Biden is seated left at a small, ornate desk, signing a document. Ukraine's President Zelenskyy, wearing casual clothes, stands on the right with his eyes raised to heaven.
Ukraine is believed to have had to change its war plans as a result of the US intelligence leaksImage: EVAN VUCCI/AFP

Iran: According to the leaked information, US secret services are monitoring both the Iranian nuclear program and the Iranian security apparatus with information coming from the very high-level sources. One document, for example, describes in detail the preparations made by senior leaders in Tehran for a visit by the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi.

Israel: Leading Mossad representatives are said to have argued in February in favor of encouraging protests against the pending judicial reform and actively calling for condemnation of the new far-right government in Jerusalem. The Israeli government has denied this, pointing out that its intelligence service is traditionally politically neutral.

Haiti: The published documents also focus on smaller countries of less significance on the world political stage. For example, one report says that members of the Russian Wagner Group secretly traveled to Haiti in February to negotiate with the government about possibly supporting it in its fight against rampant gang crime.

There are also reports on the political situation in countries such as Canada, Britain and Hungary.

 Benjamin Netanyahu standing in front of an Israeli flag and a blue wall with "State of Israel - Prime Minister's Office" in English and Hebrew.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied that members of Mossad opposed his judicial reformImage: GPO

Is the information genuine?

The leaked papers contain explosive information that goes up to the end of February 2023. Even the Pentagon is working on the assumption that the documents are essentially genuine. However, the Bellingcat investigative network has succeeded in proving that at least some of the information was retrospectively altered — particularly after it appeared on pro-Russian Telegram channels. These falsifications were clearly aimed at exaggerating Russia's military strength and portraying Ukraine's as less powerful than in the original documents. They appear to have been made by Russian Telegram users: It seems unlikely that a Russian secret service was behind them.

Who is behind the data leak?

Since the leaked documents reached the public, one person has been taken into FBI custody. US Attorney General Merrick Garland named a 21-year-old Air National Guard employee in the US state of Massachusetts as the suspect arrested in connection with the leak. The suspect is alleged to have posted the first photos of the classified documents to a Discord server. The photos followed text passages he posted from the documents, according to reporting by the Washington Post citing the suspect's relatives.

The man reportedly said he gained access to the documents at a US military base. The suspect was assigned to the 102nd Intelligence Wing at Otis Air National Guard Base, an Air Force spokesperson said.

Thomas Rid, a German cyber-security expert in the US who has viewed most of the images himself, believes it was an unintentional slip. In an interview with Deutschlandfunk, he described them as photographs of printed documents, almost all of which had been "folded in four." He said that other objects such as a knife, a broken iPhone and a handbook for a telescope were also visible around the documents photographed. Rid thinks it is possible the documents were posted online without the poster thinking about the consequences.

There is a chance that the items seen in the photos and the apparent carelessness with which they were posted led to the suspect being taken into custody so quickly. It remains unclear exactly how he came into possession of the classified documents. How the publication of said documents went unnoticed for weeks also remains unclear.

Three Ukrainian soldiers in uniform and helmets, standing in a very muddy foxhole and passing each other a mortar.
Ukrainian soldiers near Donetsk: The leaked documents warn that Ukraine is running low on ammunitionImage: Genya Savilov/AFP

What are the consequences of publication?

The damage is already considerable. Some US government officials are describing it as the most serious betrayal of state secrets since the Wikileaks affair. The governments of several US-friendly nations have also reacted with annoyance. The US broadcaster CNN reported that Ukraine had already had to change some of its military plans. Meanwhile, officials in Kyiv tried to downplay the significance of the data breach.

South Korea's government said the majority of the documents concerning its country were "fake." Israel's prime minister also described the information relating to his country as "false and baseless." 

The Russian government has denied any involvement in publishing the documents, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described them as "quite interesting," and said they were now "being studied, analyzed, widely discussed."

This article has been translated from German.

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