Dozens of leaked Defense Department classified documents posted online reveal details of U.S. spying on Russia’s war machine in Ukraine and secret assessments of Ukraine’s combat power, as well as intelligence gathering on America’s allies, including South Korea and Israel.
NBC News obtained more than 50 of the leaked documents, many of them labeled “Top Secret,” the highest level of classification.
The documents first appeared online in March, and a senior U.S. official said Saturday that the government’s “working theory” is that they are real, although some of them could have been altered.
An elderly woman stands near a burning building following shelling in Kostyantynivka, Ukraine, on March 15.Sergey Shestak / AFP via Getty ImagesThe full impact of the leak remains unclear, but it could represent the most serious breach of U.S. intelligence secrets since a contractor for the National Security Agency, Edward Snowden, passed on thousands of classified documents to journalists about U.S. electronic surveillance in 2013. In this case, the scale of the disclosure is much smaller, involving dozens instead of thousands of documents.
The documents include repeated references to information based on secret signals intelligence — electronic eavesdropping — a crucial pillar of U.S. intelligence-gathering. A former U.S. intelligence official said the disclosure of some signals intelligence reporting about Russia and its spy agencies could cause significant damage if Moscow is able to cut off those sources of information.
It remains unclear how the trove of documents ended up on various social media sites.
In a statement over the weekend, deputy Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh said, “The Department of Defense continues 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. An interagency effort has been stood up, focused on assessing the impact these photographed documents could have on U.S. national security and on our Allies and partners. Over the weekend, U.S. officials have engaged with Allies and partners and have informed relevant congressional committees of jurisdiction about the disclosure. The Department of Defense’s highest priority is the defense of our nation and our national security. We have referred this matter to the Department of Justice, which has opened a criminal investigation.”
The New York Times first reported the leak last week. The Times and The Washington Post first reported the contents of some of the same documents obtained by NBC News. The open-source investigative group Bellingcat said the documents first appeared on the Discord social media platform in March.
Many of the documents that NBC News obtained, dated from February to March, appear to be briefing slides prepared by the U.S. military’s Joint Staff and refer to information gleaned from an array of U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office, which oversees U.S. spy satellites. Some of the documents carry the label NOFORN, which prohibits the information from being shared with foreign partners.
Although U.S. officials believe the documents are most likely authentic, at least one of those obtained by NBC News appears to have been doctored, with two versions of the document appearing online, providing different estimates of Russian casualty figures.
The leak will also raise fresh questions among U.S. allies about whether Washington can be trusted with secret information. It remains unclear whether the leak is the result of a hack by a foreign adversary or whether the disclosure came from within the U.S. government or through a U.S. ally with access to American intelligence reporting.
NBC News was not able to independently confirm the intelligence reporting cited in the documents.
Here are some of the highlights from the documents:
Russia’s private mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group, has sought to purchase weapons from NATO member Turkey, as well as from Mali. The group is also considering recruiting more convicts for the war in Ukraine, according to the documents, citing signals intelligence. Some documents include satellite images of damage to various targets from Ukrainian strikes in February. A strike on an “assembly area” caused “severe damage” and was carried out with the help of U.S. intelligence, a document said.The battle for Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region is most likely headed for a “stalemate” through 2023, exhausting Russian units and frustrating Moscow’s war aims, according to an assessment based on signals intelligence and National Reconnaissance Office satellite and commercial satellite imagery, a document said.A document marked “secret” examines why Ukrainian bombs equipped with U.S.-made guidance systems, known as Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, have failed recently. It speculates that bomb fuses are not being armed correctly and that GPS signal issues — potentially caused by Russian jamming efforts — could be at play.A Feb. 28 document assesses “pathways” for Israel to provide “lethal aid” to Ukraine, providing hypothetical situations that might drive Israel from its balancing act between Kyiv and Moscow. Marked “secret,” the document also suggests what Israeli weapons could be transferred to Ukraine, such as Israel’s Javelin equivalent and other missile systems. The analysis says the “most plausible” scenario is that Jerusalem adopts a Turkish model under U.S. pressure. Like Ankara, it would mean that Israel “sells lethal defense systems or provides them through third-party entities” while openly advocating for peace and “offering to host mediation efforts.” Alternative scenarios consider how Moscow’s support of Iran’s military programs or proxy efforts in Syria could drive Israel to provide Ukraine with “lethal aid.”South Korea has concerns about providing artillery shells to the U.S. to replenish America’s supplies, as officials worried that the ammunition would end with Ukraine’s military, according to documents citing signals intelligence.The leadership of Israel’s Mossad foreign intelligence service encouraged its staff to take part in anti-government protests that have swept Israel, according to one document. Israel issued a statement vehemently denying the assertion when it was first reported.Dan De Luce
Dan De Luce is a reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
Kevin Collier is a reporter covering cybersecurity, privacy and technology policy for NBC News.
Phil McCausland is an NBC News reporter.