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Justice Dept. will investigate leak of classified Pentagon documents

The materials outline a wealth of information about the Ukrainian and Russian militaries, and include highly sensitive analyses about China and other nations

An aerial view of the Pentagon. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
7 min

The Justice Department has opened an investigation into the leak of classified Pentagon documents appearing to detail Ukraine’s combat capabilities, its potential vulnerabilities and NATO’s broad efforts to help repel Russia’s invasion, the agency said Friday, as the U.S. government raced to determine how the material surfaced online and what value it may hold for the Kremlin.

In a statement, the department said it was in communication with the Pentagon and had begun an investigation, but that it had no further comment.

Confirmation of the investigation came as senior U.S. officials realized the scope of leaked material was much more expansive than initially thought.

Earlier Friday, The Washington Post obtained dozens of what appeared to be photographs showing classified documents, dating to late February and early March, that range from worldwide intelligence briefings to tactical-level battlefield updates and assessments of Ukraine’s defense capabilities. They outline information about the Ukrainian and Russian militaries, and include highly sensitive U.S. analyses about China and other nations. The materials also reference highly classified sources and methods that the United States uses to collect such information, alarming U.S. national security officials who have seen them.

A Pentagon spokeswoman, Sabrina Singh, said in a brief statement that the matter is under review, but she declined to address when officials first became aware of the leak, and how damaging the Biden administration considers the disclosure to be. The Pentagon has referred the matter to the Justice Department, she said.

One U.S. defense official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s preliminary understanding of the leak, said that many of the documents appear to have been prepared over the winter for Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other senior military officials, but that they were available to many other U.S. personnel and contract employees with the appropriate security clearances.

It was unclear who may have posted the materials online, this person said, adding that hundreds — if not thousands — of people had access to them. The source of the leak, the official said, “could be anyone.”

The material that appeared online includes photographs of documents labeled “Secret” or “Top Secret,” and began appearing on Discord, a chat platform popular with gamers, according to a Post review.

On Wednesday, images showing some of the documents began circulating on the anonymous online message board 4chan and made their way to at least two mainstream social media platforms, Telegram and Twitter.

In some cases, it appears that the slides were manipulated. For instance, one image features combat casualty data suggesting the number of Russian soldiers killed in the war is far below what the Pentagon publicly has assessed. Another version of the image showed higher Russian casualty figures.

Besides the information on casualties that appeared to be manipulated to benefit the Russian government, U.S. officials who spoke to The Post said many of the leaked documents did not appear to be forged and looked consistent in format with CIA World Intelligence Review reports distributed at high levels within the White House, Pentagon and the State Department.

The leak, first reported Thursday by the New York Times, coincides with an expansive effort by the United States and NATO to arm and train Ukrainian units for an anticipated push this spring to reclaim Russian-occupied territory in the east and south. There were immediate concerns that the information’s disclosure could complicate that plan, as the documents appear to reveal how much Western military weaponry and other equipment had arrived on the battlefield, how many Ukrainian soldiers are trained to use it, and how Ukraine has arrayed its air defenses to stop an onslaught of Russian missiles.

Another potentially sensitive data point is the rate at which NATO-supplied howitzers are burning through the 155mm shells they fire. The documents appear to describe incoming shipment flows and projections outlining how fast the Ukrainians would run out if shipments were impeded. The Pentagon has refused to disclose such insights publicly and only vaguely describes how much artillery ammunition it provides.

The documents also include battlefield assessments, including for Bakhmut, the Ukrainian town where Russian and Ukrainian forces have been stalemated for months, locked in a ferocious, grinding artillery campaign that has left thousands dead.

While the documents do not contain specific battle plans, the material is “incredibly helpful” to the Kremlin, said Dmitri Alperovitch, chairman of Silverado Policy Accelerator, a think tank. “It literally has order of battle information — detail about the units that will be involved [in the forthcoming counteroffensive], their manning, equipment and training levels. … That information can be extremely beneficial for putting up a defense.”

The documents appear to have been drawn from multiple reports and agencies, and concern matters other than Ukraine. Two pages, for example, are purportedly a “CIA Operations Center Intelligence Update,” and includes information about events concerning Russia, Hungary and Iran.

“We are aware of the posts and are looking into the claims,” a CIA spokesperson said in a statement.

Rachel E. VanLandingham, a former Air Force attorney and expert on military law, said that whoever is responsible for the leak “is in a world of hurt.” Such breaches, she said, constitute “one of the most serious crimes that exist regarding U.S. national security.”

The images of the documents obtained by The Post all appear to have come from the same source. Each page was printed before being photographed, and folded in four in the same manner.

Classified documents may only be printed from computers in a secure facility, and each transaction is electronically logged, said Glenn Gerstell, a former general counsel with the National Security Agency who emphasized that he was speaking only about general procedures.

“The fact that the documents were printed out should significantly narrow the universe of the initial inquiry,” Gerstell said. “But even assuming they were properly printed out, that doesn’t mean the person who printed them was responsible for the leak. Maybe he or she kept them in a secure place and some spy or unauthorized person got to them and took a picture of them. Or maybe they were negligently left somewhere.”

In the past, U.S. government employees and contractors have faced considerable prison time for mishandling classified information. In one high-profile case, Reality Winner, an Air Force veteran and National Security Agency contractor, pleaded guilty in 2018 to a single felony count of unauthorized transmission of national defense information and was sentenced to five years and three months. She had shared a report about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election with a news outlet.

Skepticism abounded Friday among both Russian and Ukrainian officials aware of reports about the leaks, with each side accusing the other of being involved in a deliberate act of disinformation.

“Russia is looking for any way to intercept the information initiative, to try to influence the scenario plans of Ukraine’s counteroffensive,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said on his Telegram account Friday. “But these are only standard elements of the operational game of Russian intelligence — and nothing more. This has nothing to do with Ukraine’s real plans.”

Grey Zone, a Telegram channel popular with Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, said it was possible the documents are “disinformation of Western intelligence in order to mislead our command to identify the enemy’s strategy in the upcoming counteroffensive.”

Shane Harris and John Hudson contributed to this report.