When it comes to leaks of classified government documents, the way they are disseminated is often as telling as the actual information they contain. In 2010, U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning handed over thousands of military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks, a website with a reputation for publishing sensitive materials. Three years later, Edward Snowden leaked thousands of classified documents he had gathered as a National Security Agency contractor to select publications.
But the recent leak of more than 100 pages of classified U.S. intelligence documents, which could be the most damaging disclosure of U.S. government documents in a decade, has baffled current and former officials and security analysts. The documents, some of which are marked “Top Secret” and normally accessible only to officials with the highest level of security clearance, surfaced in early March on Discord chat servers dedicated to the popular game Minecraft and fans of a Filipino YouTube star. There they sat for a month, only breaking through to the public—and, it appears, U.S. military officials—when they were posted on a pro-Russia Telegram channel and the far-right imageboard 4chan and made their way to Twitter.
Those aren’t the only odd aspects of the documents’ emergence. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was first briefed on the leaks on April 6, the Pentagon said Monday, the same day their existence was first reported by the New York Times and a day after screenshots of the documents began circulating on mainstream social platforms. The documents, some of which TIME reviewed but could not authenticate, appear to be hastily folded and smoothed-out sheets of paper that were sloppily photographed instead of scanned. Online sleuths have apparently pieced together some of the items in the background—American hunting magazines, a bottle of Gorilla glue, a nail clipper.
None of this is typical for an intelligence leak of this magnitude, with assessments of the war in Ukraine and sensitive briefings on other countries. “The way that it was disseminated, that it was put on some website and not quietly or secretly given to an agent…it was done in the full open, so anyone could see it,” says Evelyn Farkas, the top Pentagon official for Russia and Ukraine during the Obama Administration. “It was almost daring people to notice it.”
Read More: 4 Major Takeaways From the Leaked Pentagon Files.
U.S. military, law-enforcement, intelligence and diplomatic officials are now scrambling to respond. The mystery isn’t only who leaked the documents, but also for what purpose. “The way intelligence is revealed and shared is really very much a part of war-making,” says Farkas. “And here it’s unclear who they intended to help and who they intended to hurt.”
Some of the documents were marked “SECRET/NOFORN,” meaning it is not meant to be shared with foreign countries. Others, which appeared to be briefing documents, had the seal of the Joint Chiefs’ intelligence arm. But the existence of the leaks and their bizarre appearance could be more damaging than what they actually divulge, according to analysts and former U.S. officials. The documents, if authentic, contain details on military activities in Ukraine, including the weaknesses of the country’s air defenses. But they do not reveal specific war plans or new information that contradicts what was publicly known ahead of an expected counteroffensive from Ukrainian forces.
The diplomatic fallout could be substantial. Some of the documents, if authentic, contain information that the U.S. would have obtained by spying on allies, including Israel, Ukraine, Turkey, and South Korea, raising concerns that the leak could impact these sensitive relationships and imperil U.S. allies’ willingness to share intelligence. The leak includes documents that purport to show the U.S. intercepting President Volodymyr Zelensky’s communications with defense officials, which has frustrated the Ukrainians .The cache also includes detailed information seemingly collected by the U.S. from Russia’s intercepted communications, including the operations of the mercenary Wagner group. The disclosure of such information could change the group’s procedures or imperil human sources, former officials say.
The leaks are “damaging, for sure, especially to trust and in that it possibly reveals what we know,” says Ben Hodges, a retired U.S. Army officer who served as commanding general in the United States Army Europe. “But I’m not sure how much of this is real or deception…Investigations will turn up more insight about credibility and gaps and vulnerabilities in our systems.”
The unusual format has also provided an opening to spread further disinformation and confusion. At least one version of the documents, posted on a pro-Russian Telegram, appears to have been crudely altered to inflate the U.S. estimates of Ukrainian casualties. One document in the cache appeared to show that Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, encouraged its staff to support anti-government protests against a proposed judiciary overhaul. The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vehemently denied the allegations in the document on Sunday, calling them “mendacious and without any foundation whatsoever.”
Investigators are working to determine who had the access and the motive to leak all this. Senior defense officials are taking “a closer look at how this type of information is distributed and to whom,” Pentagon spokesman Chris Meagher told reporters on Monday, calling the leak a “very serious” risk to national security. Austin has been convening military officials daily since April 7 to discuss the leaks, he said. At the State Department, spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters that U.S. officials “are engaging with allies and partners at high levels over this, including to reassure them, commitment to safeguarding intelligence and the fidelity of securing our partnerships as well,” but declined to go into specifics. The Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation, and the Pentagon has set up an “interagency effort” to get to the bottom of the leak and assess “the impact these photographed documents could have on U.S. national security and on our Allies and partners,” according to deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh.
As the investigation unfolds, officials are bracing for the possibility that more information could be circulating online. There is no obvious rhyme or reason to the disclosures; some of the documents on 4chan appeared to have been posted by someone looking to settle an argument about the war in Ukraine.
“We don’t know who’s behind this. We don’t know what the motive is,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said at briefing Monday. “We don’t know what else might be out there.”
Asked if the leak had been contained, Kirby said, “We don’t know. We truly don’t.”
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Write to Vera Bergengruen at firstname.lastname@example.org