Leaked Pentagon Documents May Herald a New Era of Revelations

the United States government has been scrambling this week, thanks to a leak of sensitive Pentagon documents that include an array of recent intelligence updates and Joint Chiefs of Staff briefings. Notably, the documents seem to be very recent, dating from as early as January to early March. The trove was first posted to Discord a few weeks ago, before some of the documents got pickup more recently on Russian Telegram channels and then Twitter.

Initial reporting about the situation—including by The New York Times, which broke the story—has focused on roughly 100 documents, but some reports indicate that even more secret documents may have been shared on Discord over the past few months. The documents are photographs of printed-out presentation slides. Some of the papers had been folded and unfolded before being photographed, and some of the photos capture slivers of other objects that were on the desk with the papers.

Researchers say the leak ranks high among other prominent recent revelations about clandestine US government activity—a list that includes information from Edward Snowden about the NSA’s bulk surveillance activity, details of the CIA’s hacking capabilities in the Vault7 revelations published by WikiLeaks, and NSA hacking tools revealed in the Shadow Brokers leak. But this latest leak has some specific characteristics reflective of the current moment: It is relatively small and contains fresh information rather than a large trove of months- or years-old data. And while it is not yet clear who leaked the documents or what their motivation was, initial indications from Discord activity suggest that the leaker may have been trying to show off to their gaming friends, and might even be a teenager or young adult.

“I am intrigued by the idea of a small, pinpoint leak phenomenon,” says Dan Meyer, a partner at the law firm Tully Rinckey who works on federal employment and national security matters. Meyer was formerly a federal investigator and whistle-blowing expert within the US government. The use of “strategic leaks” has been a tactic of top officials “for a very long time,” Meyer says. “But now the technology issue is very real with phones and the ability to move these documents in ways the government didn’t anticipate.”

The latest leaked documents reveal details about the war in Ukraine, including information about the Ukrainian army’s air defenses and plans for a future counteroffensive against Russia. Notably, the trove also reveals details about Russia’s war effort and exposes the degree to which the United States intelligence community has penetrated Russia’s military and intelligence services. 

As with any leak of state secrets, the most impactful revelations long-term generally relate to methods and access rather than specific information. That means Russian intelligence, for example, will likely make changes to its operations in response to the relvations to evade American operators. The leak also includes indications that the US has been spying on allies like South Korean and Israeli officials, a move that is not necessarily surprising but diplomatically embarrassing.

“We’re still investigating how this happened, as well as the scope of the issue,” Chris Meagher, the US assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, told reporters on Tuesday. “There have been steps to take a closer look at how this type of information is distributed and to whom. We are also still trying to assess what might be out there.”