US Intelligence Leak on Social Media

US Intelligence Leak on Social Media

WASHINGTON D.C. – What appears to be a leak of classified US intelligence documents – some top secret and a number of which relate to the war in Ukraine – was circulating on social media such as Twitter and Reddit as early as March. Despite the Pentagon’s announcement of their investigation into the circulation of more than 50 classified documents, dozens still remain viewable on Twitter. Images said to be classified US intelligence documents began popping up on social media servers associated with the gaming community. Unlike the other leaks which included materials released by NSA contractor Edward Snowden and former US army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, the files in circulation appear to be hard copies of Pentagon briefing materials and slides that appear to contain sensitive and highly classified material which presents a very serious risk to national security.

The leaked documents first appeared on a section of Discord, an instant messaging platform that hosted debates about Ukraine weeks earlier and sat undetected before it made its way to the mainstream sites in the United States like Twitter and Telegram, a multi-platform messaging service founded by a Russian entrepreneur operating outside of the United States. The photographed papers had folds in them and given the state of the documents, it is assumed that they were put in a pocket after being taken out of a secured location, suggesting that only a person with high level security clearance can access them.

The leak is being treated seriously by US intelligence agencies, who have launched investigations. The US Department of Defense released a statement saying it is “continuing to review and assess the validity of the photographed documents that are circulating on social media sites and that appear to contain sensitive and highly classified material.” The apparent leak comes as fighting continues in the town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, which has been one of the deadliest battles of the war so far. Some materials that have appeared on Russian channels appear to have been altered in a disinformation campaign by Russia, with one inflating deaths of Ukrainian troops and minimizing Russian losses in the battlefield. Some details in other documents have been challenged by other countries, including a claim that French soldiers had been engaged in operations in Ukraine.

The leak reinforces a number of issues. First, intelligence is not dependable and it can reflect only what US agencies think they know. Second, the fact that these documents sat undetected for so long and continue to circulate online underscores the limited authority the US government has to force social media companies to remove content, even classified materials threatening national security. Denials from other countries named in the material may simply be a case of them lying out of shame. At least some of the material – as seems credible – may have been doctored to spread disinformation. The most eye-catching detail relates to Ukrainian military preparedness and resilience. Documents reveal the degree to which the US has pierced the Russian ministry of defense, GRU (Russian equivalent to CIA) and the paramilitary Wagner group, largely through intercepted communications and human intelligence sources, which could now be put at risk. Chris Meagher, a top spokesperson for the Pentagon, urged caution in “promoting or amplifying any of these documents” adding that “it does appear that slides have been doctored with”.

Analysts point out that leaks like this can be a double-edged sword. While Russia will no doubt try to use it to cause distrust among one another, the sheer level to which the US has penetrated Russian decision-making circles underlines the failures in Russian military planning and intelligence, especially its effectiveness in counter-intelligence. While allies don’t like being reminded that the US routinely spies on them, it will blow over. And from Ukraine’s point of view, the leak may actually encourage better and faster resupply of their key weapons.