Senior U.S. officials are racing to placate frustrated and confused allies from Europe to the Middle East to Kyiv following the leak of highly classified information about the war in Ukraine and other global issues.
After the news of the leak broke last week, senior intelligence, State Department and Pentagon officials reached out to their counterparts to quell worries about the publishing of the intel, according to four officials — an American, two European and one Five Eyes member — familiar with those conversations.
One said that members of the Five Eyes — the intelligence consortium of the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand — have asked for briefings from Washington but have yet to receive a substantive response. Inquiries have been sent separately to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Meanwhile, officials in London, Brussels, Berlin, Dubai and Kyiv questioned Washington about how the information ended up online, who was responsible for the leak and what the U.S. was doing to ensure the information was removed from social media. They also questioned whether the Biden administration was taking steps to limit the distribution of future intelligence. As of Monday morning, U.S. officials had told allies the administration was investigating and that they were still trying to understand the full scope of the leak, the European officials said.
Ukraine has long worried about information it shares with the U.S. spilling out into the open. “This case showed that the Ukrainians have been absolutely right about that,” said one of the European officials, who like others was granted anonymity to speak about the sensitive leak. “Americans now owe the Ukrainians. They have to apologize and compensate.”
The saga has left the U.S. relationship with its allies in a state of crisis, raising questions about how Washington will correct what officials worldwide view as one of the largest public breaches of U.S. intelligence since WikiLeaks dumped millions of sensitive documents online from 2006 to 2021.
The distress over the leak is particularly problematic because the majority of the documents focus on the war in Ukraine — an effort the U.S. has repeatedly said hinges on collaboration among allies in NATO, Europe and elsewhere.
“The manner of the leak and the contents are very unusual,” said a former U.S. intelligence analyst who focused on Russia. “I can’t remember a time when there was this volume of a leak and this broad of a subject matter of authentic information that was just put on social media rather than say, the Snowden files, that went through a group of journalists first.”
The Pentagon, CIA, ODNI, and FBI declined to comment.
More than 100 U.S. intelligence documents were posted on Discord, a secure messaging app, as early as March 2 and contained sensitive, classified information about the war in Ukraine, Russian military activity, China and the Middle East. The photographed papers, which appeared to have been folded over and then smoothed out, contained top secret information, including from the Central Intelligence Agency.
POLITICO’s review of the documents shows some that appear to have been assembled into a briefing packet by the Joint Staff’s intelligence arm, known as J2, with summaries of global matters pulled from various U.S. intelligence systems. Some of the documents contain markings in the corners that correspond with specific wires with information that appear to be compiled in summary form — a practice often used by individuals inside the government to prepare briefing packets, the former U.S. intelligence analyst said.
It’s still unclear the extent to which the documents have been altered — and by whom. The documents posted in March do not appear to show any glaring alterations, but when some of those were reposted on Discord in April, at least one paper appears to have been altered to show significantly inflated Ukrainian death tolls.
Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said in a statement Sunday that the administration has assembled an interagency team “focused on assessing the impact these photographed documents could have on U.S. national security and on our allies and partners.” She confirmed that U.S. officials had engaged with “allies and partners” across the globe, adding that the department was still assessing the “validity” of the documents posted to social media.
It’s unclear who from the Biden administration is involved in that interagency effort. The senior U.S. official said only the highest levels of government were in discussions about how to manage the leak. Even those senior officials who work on Ukraine and Russia policy and on portfolios that pertain to countries mentioned in the documents did not know as of Sunday how the administration would respond.
“I have no idea what the plan is,” another senior U.S. official said. “I’d like to know myself how we’re going to handle.”
Meanwhile, in Kyiv where military leaders are busy preparing for a spring counteroffensive, senior officials blamed Russia for the leak and characterized it as a disinformation campaign.
“It is very important to remember that in recent decades, the most successful operations of the Russian special services have been carried out in Photoshop,” Andriy Yusov, the representative of the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Main Directorate, said on Friday — adding that a preliminary analysis of the documents showed “distorted figures” on losses suffered by both Russia and Ukraine.
A senior Ukrainian lawmaker said the leak was “not seen as a big issue here.”
But elsewhere in Ukraine in the senior national security ranks, officials were angered by the leak, according to one of the European officials. While the documents are dated and likely have no immediate impact on the country’s battlefield operations, the publishing of the information was viewed internally as an embarrassment and potential long-term security problem for Ukraine’s military commanders.
It’s unclear the extent to which the U.S. will alter its intelligence sharing on the Ukraine war in the days and weeks ahead.
The U.S. has made it a habit of sharing intelligence with Ukraine and European allies since 2022. In the months leading up to the war, the U.S. intelligence community shared information with allies to build a coalition of support for Kyiv and to prepare targeted sanctions on Russian government entities and businesses. Senior U.S. officials have heralded that strategy as a major success — one that allowed the U.S., its allies in Europe and in Kyiv to better prepare for the eventual Russian assault.
Veronika Melkozerova contributed to this report.
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