What we know about the major Pentagon intelligence leak

CNN Newsource Pristine Villarreal

(CNN) — The Biden administration is scrambling to assess and contain the fallout from a major leak of classified Pentagon documents that has rattled US officials, members of Congress and key allies in recent days.

The Justice Department is investigating how the trove of highly sensitive documents, which include details about how the US spies on friends and foes as well as intelligence on the war in Ukraine, ended up on social media sites.

But, to date, little is known about who may have been responsible for the leak or how some of the nation’s most tightly guarded secrets ended up on social media sites.

The Defense Department is still reviewing the matter and has taken steps to tighten the flow of such highly sensitive documents, officials said, which are normally available on any given day to hundreds of people across the government.

The Pentagon has stood up an “interagency effort” to assess the impact of the leak, but US officials and close allies already fear the revelations could jeopardize sensitive sources and compromise important foreign relationships.

Congressional lawmakers have also expressed concerns about the apparent scope of the leak and sensitivity of the documents posted online but largely remain in the dark about what has occurred.

Both House and Senate Intelligence Committee leaders are demanding answers from the Biden administration. House Intelligence Chairman Rep. Mike Turner is scheduled to receive a briefing on Monday and his Senate counterparts have jointly requested one as well.

Here what we know about the leak so far:


What happened?


The documents appeared online last month on the social media platform Discord, according to screenshots of the posts reviewed by CNN.

The posts are photos of crumpled documents laid on top of magazines and surrounded by other random objects, such as zip-close bags and Gorilla Glue. It is as if they had been hastily folded up and shoved into a pocket before being removed from a secure location, a source familiar with these kinds of documents told CNN.

A Discord spokesperson confirmed in a statement Sunday that they are cooperating with law enforcement on the investigation.

Those documents discovered on Friday all bore classified markings, some top secret — the highest level of classification.

It is unclear who is behind the leaks and where, exactly, they originated.


What is in the documents?


CNN has reviewed 53 leaked documents, all of which appear to have been produced between mid-February and early March.

They contain a wide range of highly classified information — providing a rare window into how the US spies on allies and adversaries alike.

Some of the documents, which US officials say are authentic, expose the extent of US eavesdropping on key allies, including South Korea, Israel and Ukraine.

Others reveal the degree to which the US has penetrated the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian mercenary organization Wagner Group, largely through intercepted communications and human sources, which could now be cut off or put in danger.

Still others divulge key weaknesses in Ukrainian weaponry, air defense, and battalion sizes and readiness at a critical point in the war, as Ukrainian forces gear up to launch a counteroffensive against the Russians — and just as the US and Ukraine have begun to develop a more mutually trusting relationship over intelligence-sharing.

One document reveals that the US has been spying on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. That is unsurprising, said a source close to Zelensky, but Ukrainian officials are deeply frustrated about the leak.

The US intelligence report, which is sourced to signals intelligence, says that Zelensky in late February “suggested striking Russian deployment locations in Russia’s Rostov Oblast” using unmanned aerial vehicles, since Ukraine does not have long-range weapons capable of reaching that far.

Signals intelligence includes intercepted communications and is broadly defined by the National Security Agency as “intelligence derived from electronic signals and systems used by foreign targets, such as communications systems, radars, and weapons systems.”

Yet another document describes, in remarkable detail, a conversation between two senior South Korean national security officials about concerns by the country’s National Security Council over a US request for ammunition.

The officials worried that supplying the ammunition, which the US would then send to Ukraine, would violate South Korea’s policy of not supplying lethal aid to countries at war. According to the document, one of the officials then suggested a way of getting around the policy without actually changing it — by selling the ammunition to Poland.

The document has already sparked controversy in Seoul, with South Korean officials telling reporters that they plan to raise the issue with Washington.

An intelligence report about Israel, meanwhile, has sparked outrage in Jerusalem. The report, produced by the CIA and sourced to signals intelligence, says that Israel’s main intelligence agency, the Mossad, had been encouraging protests against the country’s new government — “including several explicit calls to action,” the report alleges.


How are US allies reacting?


While US allies are aware that the US intelligence community collects information on friendly nations, diplomats from some of the countries mentioned told CNN it was frustrating — and harmful to the US reputation — to see that information exposed publicly.

US allies are doing damage assessments, scrambling to determine whether any of their own sources and methods have been compromised by the leak.

“We expect the US to share a damage assessment with us in the coming days, but we cannot wait for their assessment. Right now we are doing our own,” said an official from a country that is part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement with the US, which includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

“We are poring over these documents to figure out if any of the intelligence originated from our collection,” the official said.

A second Five Eyes nation official expressed concern about the leaked Ukraine war information handicapping the country on the battlefield.

The official also pointed out that it was alarming to see one of the documents from February titled “Russia-Ukraine: Battle for the Donbas Region Likely Heading for a Stalemate Throughout 2023.” The document notes the challenges with assessing the “endurance of Ukraine’s operations.”

“Gains for Ukraine will be hard to accomplish, but it does not help to have the private US assessment pointing to a likely yearlong stalemate revealed publicly,” the official said.

Mykhailo Podolyak, the adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, said on his Telegram channel Friday that he believes the documents that have been disseminated are inauthentic, have “nothing to do with Ukraine’s real plans” and are based on “a large amount of fictitious information” disseminated by Russia.

Still, Ukraine has already altered some of its military plans because of the leak, a source close to Zelensky told CNN.

US government officials “are engaging with allies and partners at high levels over this including to reassure them of our commitment to safeguarding intelligence and the fidelity of securing our partnerships” following the leak, State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said Monday.

At the State Department, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman has been tapped to lead the diplomatic response, according to a US official familiar with the matter.

Patel would not go into details about which countries the US has engaged with, only saying “that work is ongoing.”


Who is investigating?


The Justice Department has launched an investigation and the Defense Department is also reviewing the matter.

“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,” Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said in a statement over the weekend. “An interagency effort has been stood up, focused on assessing the impact these photographed documents could have on U.S. national security and on our Allies and partners.”

Singh added that US officials spoke with allies and partners over the weekend regarding the leak, and informed “relevant congressional committees.”

The Joint Staff, which comprises the Defense Department’s most senior uniformed leadership that advises the president, is examining its distribution lists to look at who gets these reports, a Defense official said. Many of the documents had markings indicating that they had been produced by the Joint Staff’s intelligence arm, known as J2, and appear to be briefing documents.

The Pentagon team working to determine the scale and scope of the leak includes the Defense Department’s legislative affairs, public affairs, policy, general counsel, intelligence and security, and joint staff offices, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Chris Meagher said Monday.

Asked if the government has any sense of who leaked the documents, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said Monday that the Department of Defense had referred the case to the Department of Justice for criminal investigation and directed questions to them.

“I’m not aware that they’ve come to any conclusions at this point about where they’re coming from,” Kirby said.

Asked if the administration believed the leak is contained or if there’s an ongoing threat, Kirby responded: “We don’t know. We truly don’t.”

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