US security officials scramble to find source of leaked highly classified documents

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United States  (US) officials are working to identify the source of one of the worst intelligence leaks in almost a decade after highly classified documents appeared to have been released online weeks earlier.

The Justice Department has since received a referral from the Pentagon and opened a criminal investigation.

The documents appearing online appear to share unverified details ranging from Ukraine’s air defences, to internal discussions within the South Korean and Israeli governments and includes an assessment on France’s dimming security goals in West Africa.

The leaks are thought to be the most damaging since the 2013 publication of thousands of documents on Wikileaks.

US national security officials are grappling with the fallout from the release of dozens of secret documents online, including the impact it would have on sensitive information sharing within the government and with other countries.

White House National Security spokesperson, John Kirby says, “We’re taking this very, very seriously. There is no excuse for these kinds of documents to be in the public domain. They don’t deserve to be in the public domain. They deserve to be protected. So, we’re going to get to the bottom of this. And then if there’s actions that need to be taken, as we learn more about the extent of what happened here, we’ll obviously take those.”

The leaked documents cover a wide range of topics, including details about Ukraine’s air strikes and air defence vulnerabilities; Iran’s nuclear activities, an assessment on how China might respond to Ukrainian strikes inside Russia, and an assessment on how France was likely to struggle to achieve its security goals in West and Central Africa — among others.

Officials urged caution in amplifying the documents as some appeared to have been altered or doctored.

“We know that some of them have been doctored. I won’t speak to the validity of all the documents, the ones that you know that don’t immediately appear to be doctored. We’re still working through the validity of all the documents that we know are out there. The Department of Defense, the Department of Defense has stood up an interagency effort to try to look at the national security implications, which includes taking a look at these documents to determine whether they’re actually valid or not. And I’m just not in a position to speak to that work.”

The leaked documents reportedly appeared on multiple social media sites as far back as early March and later on platforms like Twitter and Telegram, many as photographed copies amid growing concerns that sources and methods of intelligence gathering could now be compromised.

Professor Thomas Rid is from Johns Hopkins University: “It is absolutely clear at this stage that the US intelligence community writ large has to get its house in order. This is just not sustainable. No other country is leaking information at that scale. Imagine this would have happened in the UK again and again and again and again. The US probably would have stopped intelligence sharing with the UK by that stage.”

Rid adds: “So, is it really necessary to have, you know, that extraordinary number of cleared contractors and cleared employees and complicated system of classification and over-classification? I can see a number of areas where reform could be could be at least approached and considered to make the system a little more leak proof.”

Experts says the photographs of documents online suggests that whomever had access to the files had them in print form and then took pictures of the documents before distributing them online; while some information deemed classified is available to large number of people suggesting that tracking down the culprit could prove cumbersome.

And, while investigations are at an early stage, officials have not ruled out the possibility that pro-Russian elements were behind the leak — something the Kremlin has dismissed as another attempt to place the blame for all things at Russia’s doorstep.