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The U.S. Justice Department Will Probe Pentagon Document Leaks

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The Justice Department has opened an investigation into the leak of classified Pentagon documents that appear to detail Ukraine’s combat capabilities, potential vulnerabilities, and NATO’s broad efforts to help repel Russia’s invasion, the agency said Friday, as the US government raced to determine how the material surfaced online and what value it may hold for the Kremlin.

The department said in a statement that it was in contact with the Pentagon and had begun an investigation, but that it had no further comment.

The investigation was confirmed after senior US officials realised the scope of the leaked material was much broader than previously thought.

Earlier Friday, The Washington Post obtained dozens of what appeared to be photographs of classified documents ranging from global intelligence briefings to tactical-level battlefield updates and assessments of Ukraine’s defence capabilities. They include highly sensitive US analyses of China and other nations, as well as information about the Ukrainian and Russian militaries. The materials also refer to highly classified sources and methods used by the US to collect such information, which has alarmed US national security officials who have seen them.

Sabrina Singh, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in a brief statement that the matter is being reviewed, but she declined to say when officials first became aware of the leak or how damaging the Biden administration considers the disclosure to be. According to her, the Pentagon has referred the case to the Justice Department.

Many of the documents appear 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 they were available to many other U.S. personnel and contract employees with the appropriate security clearances, according to one U.S. defence official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s preliminary understanding of the leak.

This person said it was unclear who may have posted the materials online, but that hundreds, if not thousands, of people had access to them. According to the official, the source of the leak “could be anyone.”

According to a Post review, the material that appeared online includes photographs of documents labelled “Secret” or “Top Secret,” and began appearing on Discord, a chat platform popular with gamers.

Images of some of the documents began circulating on the anonymous online message board 4chan on Wednesday, eventually making their way to at least two mainstream social media platforms, Telegram and Twitter.

The slides appear to have been manipulated in some cases. For example, one image depicts combat casualty data indicating that the number of Russian soldiers killed in the war is far lower than what the Pentagon has publicly estimated. Another version of the image showed a higher number of Russian casualties.

Aside from the information on casualties that appeared to have been manipulated to benefit the Russian government, US officials who spoke to The Post said many of the leaked documents did not appear to be forged and appeared to be formatted in the same way as CIA World Intelligence Review reports distributed at high levels within the White House, Pentagon, and State Department.

The leak, first reported by the New York Times on Thursday, coincides with an extensive effort by the US and NATO to arm and train Ukrainian units in preparation for a spring push to reclaim Russian-occupied territory in the east and south. The documents appear to reveal how much Western military weaponry and other equipment has arrived on the battlefield, how many Ukrainian soldiers are trained to use it, and how Ukraine has arrayed its air defences to stop an onslaught of Russian missiles, raising immediate concerns that the information’s disclosure could complicate that plan.

Another potentially sensitive data point is the rate at which NATO-supplied howitzers expend their 155mm shells. The documents appear to describe incoming shipment flows as well as projections of how quickly Ukrainians would run out if shipments were disrupted. The Pentagon has refused to make such information public and only vaguely describes the amount of artillery ammunition it provides.

The documents also include battlefield assessments, including for Bakhmut, a Ukrainian town where Russian and Ukrainian forces have been locked in a ferocious, grinding artillery campaign that has killed thousands of people for months.

While the documents lack specific battle plans, they are “incredibly helpful” to the Kremlin, according to Dmitri Alperovitch, chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator think tank. “It literally has order of battle information — information about the units that will be involved [in the upcoming counteroffensive], their manning, equipment, and training levels.” That information can be extremely useful in mounting a defence.”

January Pentagon press briefing by deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh. (Image by: Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

The documents appear to have been compiled from various reports and agencies, and they deal with issues other than Ukraine. Two pages, for example, are ostensibly a “CIA Operations Center Intelligence Update,” and include details about events in Russia, Hungary, and Iran.

“We are aware of the posts and are investigating the claims,” said a CIA spokesperson in a statement.

According to Rachel E. VanLandingham, a former Air Force attorney and military law expert, whoever is responsible for the leak is “in a world of hurt.” Such violations, she claims, are “among the most serious crimes against US national security.”

The Post’s images of the documents appear to have come from the same source. Each page was printed before being photographed and then folded in four.

Classified documents may only be printed from computers in a secure facility, and each transaction is electronically logged, according to Glenn Gerstell, a former National Security Agency general counsel who stressed that he was only speaking about general procedures.

“The fact that the documents were printed should significantly narrow the universe of the initial investigation,” Gerstell explained. “However, even if they were printed correctly, that doesn’t mean the person who printed them was responsible for the leak.” Perhaps he or she kept them in a secure location, and some spy or unauthorised person gained access to them and photographed them. Or perhaps they were carelessly left somewhere.”

Previously, US government employees and contractors faced lengthy prison sentences for mishandling classified information. Reality Winner, an Air Force veteran and National Security Agency contractor, pleaded guilty in 2018 to a single felony count of unauthorised transmission of national defence information and was sentenced to five years and three months in prison in one high-profile case. She had given a news outlet a report about Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.

Skepticism arose Friday among Russian and Ukrainian officials who were aware of the leaks, with each accusing the other of a deliberate act of disinformation.

“Russia is looking for any way to intercept the information initiative, to try to influence the scenario plans of Ukraine’s counteroffensive,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said on Friday on his Telegram account. “However, these are merely standard elements of Russian intelligence’s operational game — nothing more.” This has nothing to do with Ukraine’s actual intentions.”

According to Grey Zone, a popular Telegram channel among Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, the documents could be “disinformation of Western intelligence in order to mislead our command to identify the enemy’s strategy in the upcoming counteroffensive.”

Info source – The Washington Post

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