Dozens of classified Defense Department documents leaked and posted online reveal details of US spying on Russia’s war machine in Ukraine and secret assessments of Ukraine’s combat power, as well as intelligence gathering on US allies. United States, including South Korea and Israel.
NBC News obtained more than 50 of the leaked documents, many of them labeled “Top Secret,” the highest level of classification.
The documents first appeared online in March, and a senior US official said Saturday that the government’s “working theory” is that they are real, although some of them may have been doctored.
The full impact of the leak is not yet clear, but it could represent the most serious breach of US intelligence secrets since a National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowden, turned over thousands of classified documents to journalists about US electronic surveillance in 2013. In this case, the scale of the disclosure is much smaller, involving dozens rather than thousands of documents.
The documents include repeated references to information based on secret intelligence signals (wiretapping), a crucial pillar of US intelligence gathering. A former US intelligence official said that the release of some US intelligence reports Signals about Russia and its spy agencies could do significant damage if Moscow can cut off those sources of information.
Both the Pentagon and the Justice Department announced investigations into the leak on Friday. It is unclear how the trove of documents ended up on various social networking sites.
The New York Times first reported the escape last week. He Times and the washington post first reported the contents of some of the same documents obtained by NBC News. The open source research group rattlesnake cat said the documents first appeared on the social media platform Discord in March.
Many of the documents obtained by NBC News, dating from February to March, appear to be briefing slides prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military and refer to information collected from a number of US intelligence agencies, including the CIA, the Agency Defense Intelligence and National Reconnaissance Office, which oversees US spy satellites. Some of the documents are labeled FORN, which prohibits sharing the information with foreign partners.
Although US officials believe the documents are most likely authentic, at least one of those obtained by NBC News appears to have been tampered with, with two versions of the document appearing online, providing different estimates of Russian casualty figures.
The leak will also raise new questions among US allies about whether Washington can be trusted with secret information. It is not clear if the leak is the result of a hack by a foreign adversary or if the disclosure came from the US government or a US ally with access to US intelligence reports.
NBC News could not independently confirm the intelligence reports cited in the documents.
Here are some of the highlights from the docs:
- Russia’s private mercenary team, the Wagner Group, has tried to buy weapons from NATO member Turkey as well as Mali. The group is also considering recruiting more convicts for the war in Ukraine, according to the documents, which cite intelligence signals.
- Some documents include satellite images of damage to various targets from Ukrainian attacks in February. An attack on an “assembly area” caused “severe damage” and was carried out with the help of US intelligence, according to a document.
- The battle for Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region will most likely head towards a “stalemate” until 2023, depleting Russian units and thwarting Moscow’s war objectives, according to an assessment based on intelligence analysis by signals from the National Reconnaissance Office and commercial satellite imagery, the document said.
- A document marked “secret” examines why Ukrainian bombs equipped with American-made guidance systems, known as Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAM, have recently failed. He speculates that the bombs’ fuses are not arming correctly and that GPS signal problems, potentially caused by Russian jamming efforts, could be at play.
- A February 28 document assesses “pathways” for Israel to provide “lethal aid” to Ukraine, providing what-if scenarios that could steer Israel away from its balancing act between Kiev and Moscow. Marked “secret”, the document also suggests which Israeli weapons could be transferred to Ukraine, such as the equivalent of Israel’s Javelin and other missile systems. The analysis says the “most plausible” scenario is for Jerusalem to adopt a Turkish model under pressure from the United States. Like Ankara, it would mean Israel “sells lethal defense systems or provides them through third-party entities” while openly advocating for peace and “offering to host mediation efforts.” Alternative scenarios consider how Moscow’s support for Iran’s military programs or proxy efforts in Syria could prompt Israel to provide Ukraine with “lethal aid.”
- South Korea is concerned about providing artillery shells to the US to replenish US supplies as officials worry the munitions will wipe out Ukraine’s military, according to documents citing intelligence signals.
- The leadership of Israel’s Mossad foreign intelligence service encouraged its staff to participate in the anti-government protests that have spread across Israel, according to a document. Israel issued a statement vehemently denying the claim when it was first reported.