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How the Latest Leaked Documents Are Different From Past Breaches

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The freshness of the documents — some appear to be barely 40 days old — and the hints they hold for operations to come make them particularly damaging, officials say.

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A plane flying over the Pentagon with trees and water in the foreground.

Leaked documents leave no doubt about how heavily the United States is involved in the war in Ukraine.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

David E. Sanger

It is the freshness of the “secret” and “top secret” documents, and the hints they hold for operations to come, that make these disclosures particularly damaging, administration officials say. On Sunday, Sabrina Singh, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said U.S. officials had notified congressional committees of the leak and referred the matter to the Justice Department, which had opened an investigation.

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A major intelligence breach. After U.S. intelligence documents, some marked “top secret,” were found circulating on social media, questions remain about how dozens of pages from Pentagon briefings became public and how much to believe them. Here is what we know:

Are the documents real? Yes, officials say — at least, for the most part. Some of the documents appear to have been altered, officials say. U.S. officials are alarmed at this exposure of secret information, and the F.B.I. is working to determine the source of the leak.

Where did the materials come from? The evidence that this is a leak, and not a hack, appears strong. The material may be popping up on platforms like Discord, Twitter, 4chan and the Telegram messaging app, but what is being circulated are photographs of printed briefing reports.

What other countries are named? The leak appears to go well beyond classified material on Ukraine. Analysts say the trove of documents also includes sensitive material on Canada, China, Israel and South Korea, in addition to the Indo-Pacific military theater and the Middle East.

The 100-plus pages of slides and briefing documents leave no doubt about how deeply enmeshed the United States is in the day-to-day conduct of the war, providing the precise intelligence and logistics that help explain Ukraine’s success thus far. While President Biden has barred American troops from firing directly on Russian targets, and blocked sending weapons that could reach deep into Russian territory, the documents make clear that a year into the invasion, the United States is heavily entangled in almost everything else.

It is providing detailed targeting data. It is coordinating the long, complex logistical train that delivers weapons to the Ukrainians. And as a Feb. 22 document makes clear, American officials are planning ahead for a year in which the battle for the Donbas is “likely heading toward a stalemate” that will frustrate Vladimir V. Putin’s goal of capturing the region — and Ukraine’s goal of expelling the invaders.

One senior Western intelligence official summed up the disclosures as “a nightmare.” Dmitri Alperovitch, the Russia-born chairman of Silverado Policy Accelerator, who is best known for pioneering work in cybersecurity, said on Sunday that he feared there were “a number of ways this can be damaging.” He said that included the possibility that Russian intelligence is able to use the pages, spread out over Twitter and Telegram, “to figure out how we are collecting” the plans of the G.R.U., Russia’s military intelligence service, and the movement of military units.

In fact, the documents released so far are a brief snapshot of how the United States viewed the war in Ukraine. Many pages seem to come right out of the briefing books circulating among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and in a few cases updates from the C.I.A.’s operations center. They are a combination of the current order of battle and — perhaps most valuable to Russian military planners — American projections of where the air defenses being rushed into Ukraine could be located next month.

Mixed in are a series of early warnings about how Russia might retaliate, beyond Ukraine, if the war drags on. One particularly ominous C.I.A. document refers to a pro-Russian hacking group that had successfully broken into Canada’s gas distribution network and was “receiving instructions from a presumed Federal Security Service (F.S.B.) officer to maintain network access to Canadian gas infrastructure and wait for further instruction.” So far there is no evidence that Russian actors have begun a destructive attack, but that was the explicit fear expressed in the document.

Because such warnings are so sensitive, many of the “top secret” documents are limited to American officials or to the “Five Eyes” — the intelligence alliance of the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. That group has an informal agreement not to spy on the other members. But it clearly does not apply to other American allies and partners. There is evidence that the United States has plugged itself into President Volodymyr Zelensky’s internal conversations and those of even the closest U.S. allies, like South Korea.

In a dispatch that is very reminiscent of the 2010 WikiLeaks disclosures, one document based on what is delicately referred to as “signals intelligence” describes the internal debate in Seoul over how to handle American pressure to send more lethal aid to Ukraine, which would violate the country’s practice of not directly sending weapons into a war zone. It reports that South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk Yeol, was concerned that Mr. Biden might call him to press for greater contributions to Ukraine’s military.

It is an enormously sensitive subject among South Korean officials. During a recent visit to Seoul, before the leaked documents appeared, government officials dodged a reporter’s questions about whether they were planning to send 155-millimeter artillery rounds, which they produce in large quantities, to aid in the war effort. One official said South Korea did not want to violate its own policies, or risk its delicate relationship with Moscow.

Now the world has seen the Pentagon’s “delivery timeline” for sea shipments of those shells, along with estimates of the cost of the shipments, $26 million.

With every disclosure of secret documents, of course, there are fears of lasting damage, sometimes overblown. That happened in 2010, when The New York Times started publishing a series called “State’s Secrets,” detailing and analyzing selected documents from the trove of cables taken by Chelsea Manning, then an Army private in Iraq, and published by Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder. Soon after the first articles were published, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed fear that no one would ever talk to American diplomats again.

“In addition to endangering particular individuals, disclosures like these tear at the fabric of the proper function of responsible government,” she told reporters in the Treaty Room of the State Department. Of course, they did keep talking — though many foreign officials say that when they speak today, they edit themselves with the knowledge that they may be quoted in department cables that leak in the future.

When Mr. Snowden released vast amounts of data from the National Security Agency, collected with a $100 piece of software that just gathered up archives he had access to at a facility in Hawaii, there was similar fear of setbacks in intelligence collection. The agency spent years altering programs, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, and officials say they are still monitoring the damage now, a decade later. In September, Mr. Putin granted Mr. Snowden, a low-level intelligence contractor, full Russian citizenship; the United States is still seeking to bring him back to face charges.

But both Ms. Manning and Mr. Snowden said they were motivated by a desire to reveal what they viewed as transgressions by the United States. “This time it doesn’t look ideological,” Mr. Alperovitch said. The first appearance of some of the documents seems to have taken place on gaming platforms, perhaps to settle an online argument over the status of the fight in Ukraine.

“Think about that,” Mr. Alperovitch said. “An internet fight that ends up in a massive intelligence disaster.”