US investigating whether Pentagon documents on Ukraine war were leaked

Papers detailing weapons supplies, casualty assessments posted online but may have been altered or used as part of a misinformation campaign

Ukrainian soldiers sit on an armored vehicle as they drive on a road between Izium and Lyman, recently retaken areas in Ukraine, on October 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Ukrainian soldiers sit on an armored vehicle as they drive on a road between Izium and Lyman, recently retaken areas in Ukraine, on October 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has launched an investigation into the possible release of Pentagon documents that were posted on several social media sites and appear to detail US and NATO aid to Ukraine, but may have been altered or used as part of a misinformation campaign.

The documents, which were posted on sites such as Twitter, are labeled secret and resemble routine updates that the US military’s Joint Staff would produce daily but not distribute publicly. They are dated ranging from February 23 to March 1, and provide what appears to be details on the progress of weapons and equipment going into Ukraine with more precise timelines and amounts than the US generally provides publicly.

They are not war plans and they provide no details on any planned Ukraine offensive. And some inaccuracies — including estimates of Russian troop deaths that are significantly lower than numbers publicly stated by US officials — have led some to question the documents’ authenticity.

According to CNN, the documents include details on “Israel’s pathways to providing lethal aid to Ukraine,” though no further details were given. Jerusalem has so far refused to transfer weapons as part of the aid it has offered to Kyiv, though last month a report indicated it may supply defensive systems.

In a statement Friday, Sabrina Singh, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the Defense Department “made a formal referral” of the matter to the Justice Department for investigation. And the Justice Department, in a separate statement Friday, said, “We have been in communication with the Department of Defense related to this matter and have begun an investigation.”

The investigation comes as questions continued to swirl about the origination and the validity of the documents, and as reports suggest more have begun to appear on social media sites.

“It is very important to remember that in recent decades, the Russian special services’ most successful operations have been taking place in Photoshop,” Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate, said on Ukrainian TV. “From a preliminary analysis of these materials, we see false, distorted figures on losses on both sides, with part of the information collected from open sources.”

Separately, however, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office released a statement Friday about a meeting he had with his senior military staff, and it noted that “the participants of the meeting focused on measures to prevent the leakage of information regarding the plans of the defense forces of Ukraine.”

If the published documents are authentic to any degree, however, the leak of classified data is troubling and raises questions about what other information about the Ukraine war — or any coming offensive — could be distributed. US officials on Friday provided no clarity on the origin of the documents, their authenticity, or who actually was the first to post them online.

The New York Times was the first to report about the documents. Later Friday, the Times reported that more documents involving Ukraine as well as other sensitive national security topics such as China and the Middle East had begun appearing on social media.

One US official said the initial documents resemble data produced daily by the Joint Staff, although some numbers are wrong. Even if they were legitimate, the official said, the US believes there is little real intelligence value to the documents, since much of it is information Russia would already know or could glean from the battlefield. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence documents.

The charts and graphs describe some battlefield status of both sides from a month ago, US military movements during the previous 24 hours, personnel numbers and the local weather outlook.

Nina Nikiforovа, 80, cries next to the body of her son Oleg Kunynets, a Ukrainian military serviceman who was killed in the east of the country, during his funeral in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

But there are errors. Under a section titled “Total Assessed Losses,” one document lists 16,000-17,500 Russian casualties and up to 71,000 Ukrainian casualties. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said publicly last November that Russia has lost “well over” 100,000 soldiers, and Ukraine had lost about that many also. And those estimates have continued to climb in recent months, although officials have stopped providing more exact numbers.

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