The Pentagon is investigating social-media posts that purport to reveal highly classified U.S. government documents on the war in Ukraine and other key international topics, in what could be one of the most dangerous intelligence breaches in decades.
Well over 100 images, marked with “Top Secret” and other classifications indicating they represent highly sensitive U.S.-produced intelligence, were posted in the Discord message board of fans of the Minecraft computer game around March 1. While many of them were deleted recently, open-source intelligence researchers have managed to download more than 60 files.
The documents, which appear to originate from within the U.S. military and intelligence agencies, include details about the disposition of Ukrainian forces, air defenses and military equipment, classified information about arms and support the U.S. has provided to Kyiv in its fight against Russian invaders, and intelligence on internal matters in a variety of nations, including Israel and South Korea.
The Pentagon said Friday night it is reviewing the matter: “The Department of Defense is actively reviewing the matter, and has made a formal referral to the Department of Justice for investigation,” Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said.
“We have been in communication with the Department of Defense related to this matter and have begun an investigation,’’ a Justice Department spokeswoman said in a statement. “We decline further comment.”
A CIA spokesperson said the agency is aware of the social-media posts and is looking into the matter.
The Wall Street Journal wasn’t able to independently authenticate the documents, but they contain enough detail to give them credibility, and the leak has rattled Pentagon officials. This week, the U.S. has already changed how military personnel access such documents, defense officials said. But Pentagon officials have yet to determine how the documents appeared online or which military installation they could have come from, defense officials said.
Even before the scope of the disclosures emerged, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday that Kyiv would take fresh steps to prevent leaks about its planned spring offensive.
Mr. Zelensky said that he convened the country’s top military commanders and security officials on Friday to discuss the planned push to regain the 18% of Ukraine that remains occupied by Russia. The meeting, he added in a statement, also discussed new “measures to prevent leaks of information about the plans of Ukrainian defense forces.”
Aric Toler, head of research and training with the Bellingcat investigative consortium, said he found the cache of new documents on Friday, a day after at least six purported images of classified U.S. documents were published on the Telegram platform by pro-Kremlin war commentators. At least one of these images had been altered—to lower an estimate of Russian casualties and to inflate Ukrainian losses.
Those and some additional images had been posted on the 4chan messaging platform on Thursday.
Dozens of newly discovered images viewed by The Wall Street Journal contained highly valuable information for America’s adversaries, particularly Russia.
The documents, some of which appear to be briefing materials, outline details of the purported locations and operations of Ukraine’s air-defense systems, quantities of each type of air-defense missiles and sobering predictions of when Ukrainian forces would run out of each kind of munition.
Other documents contained detailed information on the schedules and routes of U.S. and allied reconnaissance aircraft in the Black Sea; the vulnerabilities of some of the American weapons provided to Ukraine; and the composition and armaments of the nine Ukrainian army brigades being trained by the U.S. and allies for the coming spring offensive. Russian jets forced a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone to crash into the Black Sea on March 14, two weeks after these files were posted.
In addition to documents pertaining to the war in Ukraine, the leaked files included purported copies of the daily intelligence report provided to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley, Central Intelligence Agency reports on leaders of Israel’s Mossad spy service, and intelligence on discussions within the government of South Korea on sales of artillery ammunition to Kyiv. Most of the documents are dated in February and appear to have been posted online shortly after their creation. Many contain details of future operations.
“If some guy on Minecraft Map Discord was able to find these and share them a few days after they first appeared on March 1, there is a pretty good chance that Russian intelligence was able to get a glance at them, too,” Mr. Toler said.
At the margins of some pages are printed markings common to top-secret documents, including the government agency that produced them and the level of classification. Documents include updates from the CIA’s Operations Center, as well as material from a host of other intelligence units.
Those include the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency; the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyzes data from spy satellites; the eavesdropping National Security Agency; and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
U.S. defense officials said they believe at least some of the images were leaks of documents produced by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which is composed of top military commanders for each of the services and advises the president.
Gen. Milley was briefed Wednesday afternoon about the first batch of leaked documents to surface, as was Mr. Austin, the defense officials said, before the discovery of the latest suspected leaked documents.
The U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners have been training and equipping nine Ukrainian Army brigades with Western heavy weapons, including the Leopard-2 and Challenger tanks, and Stryker, Marder and Bradley fighting vehicles. Ukraine is separately training several other combat brigades, under the auspices of the army, the national guard, the border service and other security agencies.
The photographs that emerged online earlier this week appear to be of printed presentation slides and maps. Because classified documents can only be printed on approved systems, the U.S. government will likely have some record of who produced them, said Aram Gavoor, associate dean for academic affairs at George Washington University Law School and a national-security expert.
Documents receive a Top Secret designation when U.S. officials believe their disclosure could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security. “That means that the unauthorized release of these could lead to loss of life inside Ukraine,” said Mr. Gavoor. Many of these documents are marked NOFORN—meaning that they cannot be released even to America’s closest allies.
While both U.S. and Ukrainian officials were wary of sharing information with one another early in the war, fearing their plans might be compromised, mutual trust had improved in recent months. It is unclear to what extent this incident will sour exchanges between the two nations.
The war in Ukraine has led to a large volume of regularly updated classified documents that have been shared widely within the U.S. government.
“Keeping in mind that a great majority of classified documents are never leaked, the risk of a leak increases in an environment like this one where the United States is engaging in an unprecedented intelligence, advisory and logistics operation in support of Ukraine,” said Mr. Gavoor, the national-security expert at George Washington University Law School.