Leak or hack? Information or disinformation? A coup for Russia or a ploy for the United States?
Days after US intelligence documents, some marked “top secret”, were found circulating on social media, questions remain about how the dozens of pages of the Pentagon briefing became public and how much inventory should have been put in them.
Here's what we know about the docs.
Is the document genuine?
Yes, officials say — at least, for the most part.
US officials are concerned about the disclosure of classified information, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is working to determine the source of the leak.
Some of the documents appear to have been altered, officials said. It is unclear who authored the report or why they did it. Whatever the reason, some of the material, military analysts say, overstates American estimates of casualties in the Ukrainian war and underestimates how many Russian troops have been killed since Moscow's invasion of its neighbor last year.
Where do these ingredients come from?
The evidence that this is a leak, and not a hack, seems strong.
The material may appear Whac-a-Mole style on platforms like Twitter, 4chan, and the messaging app Telegram — not to mention a Discord channel dedicated to the video game Minecraft — but what gets circulated are printed photos of the briefing report.
They looked like photographs taken hastily from a piece of paper sitting on what looked like a hunting magazine. Former officials who reviewed the material said it appears the classified briefing was folded, stuffed into a pocket, and then taken out of a secure area to be photographed.
Some of the documents are specifically flagged for US eyes only, increasing the chances of an American official leaking the information.
What have we learned about the war in Ukraine?
While the document may not fundamentally change the understanding of what happened on the battlefield, it may offer insight — or at least tantalizing clues — to the trained eye of a Russian war planner.
The document does not contain a specific battle plan, including one regarding a Ukrainian counterattack expected next month. But they detail secret American and NATO plans to build up Ukraine's military ahead of the attack.
They also argue that Ukrainian troops are in even more dire straits than their government has openly acknowledged.
Without an influx of ammunition, the documents show, the air defense systems holding back the Russian Air Force would soon collapse, allowing President Vladimir V. Putin to deploy his fighter jets in a way that could change the course of the war.
And the fact that the materials leaked—and in particular the confirmation they offer that the US government is spying on allies and foes alike—might prove to be detrimental to the united coalition emerging to help Ukraine fend off a Russian invasion. It can also make allies think twice about sharing sensitive information.
Did the US penetrate Russian intelligence?
Leaked Pentagon documents reveal how deeply the United States has dug into Russia's security and intelligence services, allowing Washington to warn Ukraine of a planned attack and gain insight into the power of Moscow's war machine.
The material reinforces an idea that intelligence officials have long recognized: The United States has a clearer understanding of Russian military operations than it does of Ukrainian planning.
The military apparatus is so compromised, according to the document, that American intelligence can get daily real-time alerts about the time of a Moscow attack and even the specific target.
That may now change.
The leak has the potential to undermine Ukraine's war effort by exposing which Russian agents the United States knows best, giving Moscow a potential opportunity to cut off sources of information.
What are the names of other countries?
The leak appears to extend beyond classified material in Ukraine. Security analysts who have reviewed documents on social media sites say the growing trove also includes sensitive briefing material on Canada, China, Israel and South Korea, in addition to the Indo-Pacific and Middle East military theater.
Among the disclosures:
A hacker group under the guidance of Russia's Federal Security Service may have infiltrated a Canadian gas pipeline company in February and caused damage to its infrastructure.
A Pentagon assessment concluded that the leadership of Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, had encouraged the agency's staff and Israeli citizens to participate in the antigovernment protests that rocked the country in March. Israeli officials denied the report.
Officials in South Korea, a key American ally, are torn between Washington's pressure to help supply munitions to Ukraine and its official policy not to provide lethal weapons to countries at war, fearing that the United States will divert South Korean weapons to Kyiv.
Russia's military may be failing, but Wagner's private mercenary groups – led by President Vladimir V. Putin's Russian allies – are thriving in much of the world. Wagner worked to thwart American interests in Africa and had explored branches to Haiti, right under the nose of the United States.
To support the introduction of advanced NATO-supplied tanks on the Ukrainian battlefield, Russian forces are prepared to pay bonuses to troops that successfully damage or destroy them.
One of the documents lays out the American assessment of a scenario that could lead Israel to provide weapons to Ukraine, which is contrary to current Israeli policy.
US officials are preparing a chilling assessment of one of the war's longest-running battles, at Bakhmut.
Disinformation? If so, who?
Officials in Washington described the release of the documents as a major intelligence breach, but in Kyiv and Moscow, there was agreement on two things: The information was suspicious, and the purpose was subterfuge. They just couldn't agree on who was behind it.
In a statement to The New York Times, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said the document contained fictional information.
“There is not the slightest doubt that this is another element of hybrid warfare,” he said. “Russia is trying to influence Ukrainian society, spreading fear, panic, mistrust and doubt. That's typical behavior.”
The aim, said Ukraine, was to weaken the impending counterattack.
In Russia, pro-war military bloggers have also pointed to a Ukrainian counteroffensive — but have drawn a different conclusion.
A post on Gray Zonea Telegram channel linked to the Wagner militia, said: “We must not exclude the great possibility that the leakage of such classified information at the right time of the intensification of hostilities, and after the facts of the events reached are shown in the documents, is disinformation of Western intelligence to mislead our orders. to identify the enemy's strategy for the upcoming counterattack.”
On another Russian Telegram channel, a prominent voice said the original documents showed higher Russian losses, part of a “Western influence” operation meant to “instill bad morale in Russia and Russian troops,” according to the head of a British firm that tracks disinformation.
Reporting contributed by Helen Cooper, Eric Schmitt, Julian E. Barnes, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Michael Schwirtz And Ivan Nechepurenko.