Biden administration in full-blown damage control mode as leak scandal grows

Key lawmakers demanded answers Tuesday as outrage grew over a major leak of highly classified government documents, with U.S. allies left fuming by apparent American spying efforts and foes openly gloating over a deeply embarrassing scandal that has caught the Biden administration off guard.

Democratic Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer called for an all-Senate classified briefing on the documents, joining a chorus of lawmakers on Capitol Hill who say the administration needs to act quickly to find the source of the leak and to prepare for the possibility that even more damaging material could soon be disclosed. The Pentagon and Justice Department have each launched their own investigations into the leaked materials, which the administration has yet to authenticate, although defense officials said this week that the documents appear similar to those used for military leaders’ daily briefings.

Perhaps most worrying of all, the White House and other government agencies can’t say whether additional leaks are on the horizon, nor have they offered any clues as to how long the investigations may take.

“We’d like to get answers as quickly as we can so we can find out, you know, where this breach occurred. But I don’t know. And I think it would be foolish for anybody to try to guess how long that’s going to take,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday.

The documents, most of which are several months old, contained sensitive information and intelligence on a variety of topics, from the disposition of Ukrainian forces and a possible Egyptian weapons deal with Russia to a possible hack of a Canadian pipeline by Russian-based cyber agents.

Tuesday brought even more troubling disclosures, with the Associated Press reporting that one document shows Russian intelligence officials — in conversations evidently captured by U.S. intelligence — bragging that the Kremlin is partnering with the United Arab Emirates to work together against the U.S. and Britain.

The UAE denied those reports, calling them “categorically false.”

But the revelations underscored the deep damage that’s already been done as a result of the leak, one of the most significant disclosures of classified information in years.

Indeed, the administration has been in full-blown damage control mode this week in the wake of the revelations. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he’s been convening daily meetings of top military officials as part of an “urgent” government-wide response to find the perpetrators and stop future leaks.

“We take this very seriously,” Mr. Austin said Tuesday, addressing the controversy at a press conference with Secretary of State Antony Blinken alongside their Philippine counterparts at the State Department.

“We will continue to work with our outstanding allies and partners,” Mr. Austin said. “And nothing will ever stop us from keeping America secure.”

But numerous U.S. relationships are facing fresh strain. Officials would not comment on a Washington Post report, citing one of the leaked documents, that Egyptian officials had discussed secretly supplying Russia with as many as 40,000 rockets. Such a step, which would clearly help Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, would be a major blow to America’s effort to galvanize global opposition to Russia’s invasion.

Both the Kremlin and a leading Egyptian state-linked newspaper denied the allegations on Tuesday.

Another document appears to show that the U.S. intelligence agencies eavesdropped on high-level South Korean internal discussions  over weapons sales to the U.S., and Seoul’s fears that those weapons would ultimately end up in Ukraine. That document could drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, an irreplaceable American ally in the Pacific.

One paper contained apparent U.S. intelligence suggesting that Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, had encouraged its staff and Israeli citizens to join recent domestic protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reform plan. Mr. Netanyahu categorically rejected that claim in a rare public statement on Israel’s intelligence activities.

Of most immediate concern could be documents related to Ukraine and its war effort. The documents reportedly include pessimistic assessments of Ukraine’s chances for success in its upcoming spring offensive, along with more tangible information such as the Ukrainian military’s “burn rate” of U.S.-supplied artillery and other equipment.

At his Tuesday press conference, Mr. Blinken would not comment on any specific issues in the documents but said he spoke to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba earlier in the day.

“In speaking to him I reaffirmed our enduring support for Ukraine and for its efforts to defend its territorial integrity, its sovereignty, its independence,” Mr. Blinken said. 


Key questions about the authenticity of the documents remain unanswered, fueling speculation that the leak is perhaps connected to foreign adversaries or may even be an elaborate disinformation campaign. Photos of the sensitive documents first appeared quietly on the gamer social messaging app Discord early last month, but were only noticed and given wide publicity late last week.

Intelligence officials were reportedly studying the leaked documents trying to narrow down who would have had access to them and how they ended up on the site.

With those questions swirling, lawmakers on Capitol Hill demanded more information. A spokesperson for Mr. Schumer, New York Democrat, announced on Tuesday the request for an all-Senate briefing, though no date had yet been set. Other key members of Congress urged the Pentagon and other arms of the federal government to act immediately to protect sensitive information.

“Protecting classified information is critical to our national security, and the [Defense Department] and intelligence community must work quickly to prevent any spillage and identify the source of any leak,” Rep. Mike Turner, Ohio Republican, and Rep. Jim Himes, Connecticut Democrat, said in a joint statement late Monday.

“We have requested additional information from the Defense Department and [intelligence community] and expect the committee to be briefed as the investigation proceeds,” said Mr. Turner and Mr. Himes, chairman and ranking member, respectively, on the House Intelligence Committee., the British-based internet sleuthing site, posted a lengthy forensic analysis of the origins of the secret documents on the gamer chat app Discord, which found that some of the documents in question had been posted by a user March 4, and that those documents might have been based on a previous post on one of the site’s chat rooms as early as January. Bellingcat said there was a history of gamer app users putting out sensitive or secret documents and intelligence on the site during debates over the accuracy of weaponry and tactics in video war-simulation games.

Bellingcat investigator Aric Toler reported that on March 4, “after a brief spat with another person on the server about Minecraft Maps and the war in Ukraine, one of the Discord users replied ‘here, have some leaked documents’ – attaching 10 documents about Ukraine, some of which bore the “Top Secret” markings.”

That poster in turn referred to an earlier publication of the leaked documents on a now-deleted Discord site known as “Thug Shaker Central.” Bellingcat investigators wrote Tuesday they were so far “unable to independently verify all of the information shared by these users, including the aforementioned January document or if the other uploader described as the source of the leak was indeed the original source.”

Unreliable partner

U.S. foes seized on the leak to paint Washington as an unreliable partner who routinely spies on its own friends.

“While knowing that their security interests are highly tied to that of the U.S., allies are coming to realize that the relationship with Washington is more of a domination and subordination [relationship],” Yang Xiyu, a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, told China’s state-run Global Times newspaper on Tuesday. “To satisfy its own selfish needs, the U.S. is threatening the security of its allies through spying on their intelligence by any means necessary.”

Russia’s state-run Tass News Agency also played up reports that the disclosures could deal a blow to the Ukrainian military by disclosing details about Kyiv’s force strength ahead of its widely anticipated spring offensive.

Such narratives from China and Russia aren’t surprising. But Western intelligence officials suggested Tuesday that the documents — and the media’s fixation on them — could actually aid disinformation efforts from U.S. adversaries.

“The widely reported leak of alleged classified U.S. information has demonstrated a serious level of inaccuracy,” the British Ministry of Defense said in a Twitter post Tuesday. “Readers should be cautious about taking at face value allegations that have the potential to spread disinformation.” 

Pentagon officials said Monday that it appears some of the documents have been altered. For example, one of the documents lists the number of estimated Russian military deaths so far in Ukraine at just 16,000. Western officials put the number of Russian casualties at nearly 200,000.

The document dump on the Discord site contained more than 100 images of government papers with classification markings posted to social media sites, including Twitter.

Some of the leaked documents were marked “Top Secret,” the nation’s highest classification marking.

Many of the documents have since been deleted, though open-source intelligence sleuths have been able to download more than 60 of the papers.

The documents seem to be photographs of printed materials, suggesting that someone printed the papers and physically took pictures of them. 

Joseph Clark and David R. Sands contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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