Ukraine frontline soldiers
Ukrainian soldiers carry cartridges in their position on the frontline, near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Friday, April 7, 2023. Newly leaked US intelligence documents offer tactical information about the war in Ukraine. Image Credit: AP

Washington: On Saturday, as US officials and their foreign allies scrambled to understand how dozens of classified intelligence documents had ended up on the internet, they were stunned - and occasionally infuriated - at the extraordinary range of detail the files exposed about how the United States spies on friends and foes alike.

The documents, which appear to have come at least in part from the Pentagon and are marked as highly classified, offer tactical information about the war in Ukraine, including the country’s combat capabilities. According to one defence official, many of the documents seem 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 other US personnel and contract employees with the requisite security clearances.

Other documents include analysis from US intelligence agencies about Russia and several other countries, all based on information gleaned from classified sources.

Detailed briefings

The series of detailed briefings and summaries open a rare window on the inner workings of American espionage. Among other secrets, they appear to reveal where the CIA has recruited human agents privy to the closed-door conversations of world leaders; eavesdropping that shows a Russian mercenary outfit tried to acquire weapons from a NATO ally to use against Ukraine; and what kinds of satellite imagery the United States uses to track Russian forces, including an advanced technology that appears barely, if ever, to have been publicly identified.

Officials in several countries said that they were trying to assess the damage from the disclosures, and many were left wondering how they had gone unnoticed for so long. Photographs of at least several dozen pages of highly classified documents, which looked to have been printed and then folded together into a packet, were shared on Feb. 28 and March 2 on Discord, a chat platform popular with gamers. The documents were shared by a user to a server called “Wow Mao.”

Some of the documents appear to be detailed Ukraine battlefield assessments prepared over the winter for senior Pentagon leaders. But officials only became aware that the documents were sitting on a public server around the time that the New York Times first reported the leak, on Thursday, according to people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe an unfolding investigation.

Senior Pentagon leadership restricted the flow of intelligence Friday in response to the revelations, two US officials said. One described the clampdown as unusually strict and said it revealed a high level of panic among Pentagon leadership.

A European intelligence official worried that if Washington restricts allies’ access to future intelligence reports, it could leave them in the dark. Many of the leaked documents are labeled “NOFORN,” meaning they cannot be released to foreign nationals. But others were cleared to be shared with close US allies, including the Five Eyes alliance of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. US intelligence about British and Canadian activities is contained in some of the documents, suggesting that the fallout from the leaks will not be limited to the United States.

“We need to manage this well both internally and externally,” a second defence official said. “There are lot of institutions and agencies involved.”

The Justice Department has opened an investigation into the leak. A spokeswoman for Discord, where the earliest known copies of the images were posted, declined to comment.

Extent of leak unclear

The full extent of the leak was unclear. The second defence official said that what had appeared online was likely the result of a single disclosure from one tranche of documents, but officials were not yet certain of that.

The 50 pages reviewed by The Washington Post involved nearly every corner of the US intelligence apparatus. The documents describe intelligence activities at the National Security Agency, the CIA, the Defence Intelligence Agency, law enforcement agencies and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) - arguably the most secretive intelligence agency in the government, responsible for a multibillion-dollar constellation of spy satellites.

The documents primarily concern the war in Ukraine and demonstrate how the United States is making assessments about the state of the conflict and where it’s headed. That analysis informs major policy decisions by the Biden administration, including what weapons to provide Ukraine and how to respond to Russia’s battlefield strategy.

For instance, a Feb. 23 overview of fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region forecasts a “grinding campaign of attrition” by Russia that “is likely heading toward a stalemate, thwarting Moscow’s goal to capture the entire region in 2023.”

The fact that the United States bases its assessments on many sources is no secret. But US officials said these more detailed disclosures could help Moscow thwart some avenues for collecting information.

Early warning

The documents also demonstrate what has long been understood but never publicly spelled out this precisely: The US intelligence community has penetrated the Russian military and its commanders so deeply that it can warn Ukraine in advance of attacks and reliably assess the strengths and weaknesses of Russian forces.

A single page in the leaked trove reveals that the US intelligence community knew the Russian Ministry of Defence had transmitted plans to strike Ukrainian troop positions in two locations on a certain date in February and that Russian military planners were preparing strikes on a dozen energy facilities and an equal number of bridges in Ukraine.

The documents reveal that US intelligence agencies are also aware of internal planning by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.

The documents point to numerous intelligence successes by the United States. But they also show how depleted Ukrainian forces have become after more than a year at war.

A senior Ukrainian official on Saturday said the leaks had angered Kyiv’s military and political leaders, who have sought to conceal from the Kremlin vulnerabilities related to ammunition shortages and other battlefield data. The official said he was also concerned that more revelations of classified military intelligence were forthcoming.

In the meantime, some of the now public intelligence could ignite diplomatic controversies.

An eye on Iran

The documents also show that Washington is keeping a close eye on Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. One briefing from February succinctly notes that in recent days Iran had conducted tests of short-range ballistic missiles. Another takes stock of a newly published report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s efforts to expand its facilities for enriching uranium.

Those reports appear offered as routine updates to policymakers. But another, which purports to derive from signals intelligence and “diplomatic reporting,” offers a dim assessment on behalf of the US intelligence community of the IAEA’s ability to carry out its nuclear security mission.

North Korea updates

Other reports provide updates on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, including missile tests. And in a reminder that the United States also spies on its allies, another document reports that South Korea’s National Security Council in early March “grappled” with a US request that the country provide artillery ammunition to Ukraine, without unduly provoking Moscow.

South Korea’s national security adviser suggested possibly selling the munitions to Poland, which controls the main weapons supply routes, since it was the US goal to get the material to Ukraine quickly, the report said, citing signals intelligence.

Source of leak unclear

The original source of the leak remains unclear. The Post identified the user that shared the images in February and March who, according to a review of previous social media posts, is based in Southern California. A Twitter account using the same handle and avatar image as the Discord account wrote on Friday they had “found some info from a now banned server and passed it on.”