The Pentagon docs: America’s worst intelligence leak in a decade

Classified files reveal Ukrainian military vulnerabilities, penetration of Russian intelligence and information on US allies

The Pentagon houses the US Department of Defense
The Pentagon has said it is reviewing who has access to top-secret material
(Image credit: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The release of classified US defence department documents that reveal how the war in Ukraine is really playing out as well as security secrets relating to the US’s allies has been described as America’s most serious intelligence leak in a decade.

CNN reported that the Biden administration is “scrambling to assess and contain the fallout” from the release of top secret Pentagon files that “has rattled US officials, members of Congress and key allies in recent days”.

What do they contain?

Believed to number around 100 photographed pages in total, the documents analysed so far range from battlefield assessments of Ukraine’s war effort to intelligence on US allies and proof the Pentagon has penetrated Russian intelligence. Others reportedly focus on defence issues in the Middle East and Indo-Pacific region.

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Analysis of 20 documents by the BBC related to the war in Ukraine “tell of the casualties suffered on both sides, the military vulnerabilities of each and, crucially, what their relative strengths are likely to be when Ukraine decides to launch its much-anticipated spring offensive”, said diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams.

As well as revealing that Ukraine’s air defences may be close to collapse, the documents show that “nearly every Russian security service appears penetrated by the United States in some way”, said The New York Times (NYT). As a result, the US is able to obtain daily real-time warnings on the timing of Moscow’s strikes and even its specific targets.

Other files reveal the “low confidence” the US has in the casualty estimates on both sides in the war, while also seeming to confirm a long-held suspicion that the US has been spying on close allies, including South Korea and Israel.

“This is bad news for everyone,” a European official told the Financial Times (FT). “It’s bad news for the Ukrainians, it’s bad news for the Americans because everyone sees how they operate, and it’s bad news for the allies more generally because we see that the Ukrainians are running out of ammunition, which is not the best message you want in the air.”

Time magazine sounded a note of caution, however, saying “it’s important to keep in mind that not all of the information may be reliable”, with some documents appearing altered to, for example, overstate American estimates of Ukrainian casualties and minimise estimates of Russian troops killed.

Who was responsible for the leak?

So far “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”, said CNN.

First reported in mainstream media by The New York Times last week, some of the documents dated to January “could have been posted online even earlier, although it is unclear exactly when”, said Aric Toler, from open-source investigations site Bellingcat.

“While it has as yet not been possible to uncover the original source of these apparent leaks”, he said, an investigation by Bellingcat had been able to trace the spread of the documents back over a variety of internet forums. These included 4Chan and the Discord platform for gamers, before they began appearing on pro-Russian Telegram channels where they were picked up by major outlets.

Kremlin supporters have suggested it could be a deliberate ploy by the CIA to demoralise Russians by showing how badly the war in Ukraine is going. However, a more plausible theory is that it is a Russian hack designed to embarrass Washington, as one US official suggested to Reuters on Friday.

“The truth may be more worrying for the US and its allies,” wrote Julian Borger, world affairs editor for The Guardian – that it is just “another example of how carelessly Washington handles its secrets”.

According to The Washington Post, many of the leaked documents appear to have been put together for top military leaders, including General Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, but were also available to other US personnel and contractors with the right security clearances.

What will the consequences be?

Whoever is responsible, the fallout from what The Economist called “America’s most serious intelligence leak in a decade” will be deep and long-lasting.

A lot of the detail here is familiar and some of the documents are as much as six weeks old, “but the implications are huge”, agreed the BBC’s Paul Adams.

The leak has “already complicated relations with allied countries and raised doubts about America’s ability to keep its secrets”, said the NYT. In another report by the paper, a senior intelligence official described it as “a nightmare for the Five Eyes” – the five countries that share intelligence information: the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

More significantly, it also has “the potential to do real damage to Ukraine’s war effort by exposing which Russian agencies the United States knows the most about, giving Moscow a potential opportunity to cut off the sources of information”, the paper added.

A source close to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy told CNN that Ukraine has already altered some of its military plans because of the leak.

The FT said that it has “sown chaos and paranoia among Washington’s national security apparatus ahead of a critical moment in the Ukraine war”, with Kyiv’s forces expected to launch a counter-offensive against Moscow soon. In addition the release “could jeopardise not only information critical to American policymaking, but also potentially the safety of individuals who provide intelligence”.

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