A tranche of what appears to be classified U.S. intelligence material was posted anonymously on the social media platform Discord over the last three months in the latest leak of highly guarded national secrets.
The documents, all photographs of printouts, pertain to a host of sensitive American national security matters, including the ongoing U.S.-led coalition campaign to defeat the Islamic State group, the disposition of U.S allies in the Middle East and Europe with respect to Russia, and the United Kingdom’s military plans for countering China in the Pacific.
Yesterday, Discord was used to leak a number of Pentagon documents relating to Russia’s war against Ukraine, including estimated losses on both sides, the New York Times reported. The U.S. Defense Department confirmed today that the material was genuine but claimed it had been selectively edited before being released, which was corroborated by open-source analysis. The Washington Post reported that “many of the documents appear to have been prepared over the winter for Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military officials.”
Yet the Ukraine files were evidently just a portion of the leaked U.S. intelligence materials. Multiple documents in the latest batch are marked “TOP SECRET,” a high category of classification. Others are marked “FVEY,” meaning they are only to be shared with the U.K., Canada, New Zealand and Australia, which together with the United States constitute the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance.
Yahoo News has seen over 60 other documents but cannot verify their authenticity. There is the possibility that some or all may be forgeries or manipulated versions of originals. They cover a gamut of urgent U.S. foreign policy preoccupations.
Since the previously reported Ukraine documents have been selectively altered, it is quite possible that even if these documents are real, in part or in whole, they may have been obtained by a hostile foreign intelligence apparatus, if not manipulated or seeded with disinformation designed to undermine U.S. or Ukrainian national security interests. However, even if that is the case, they offer insights into how the source for the leaks wants outside parties to see America’s intelligence assessments across a swath of portfolios and regions.
One document labeled “TOP SECRET” allegedly originated from the CIA. It contains an assessment that Viktor Orban’s Hungary, a NATO and EU member—albeit one still close to Russia—now considers the U.S. to be one of its most significant geopolitical adversaries. Another assessment details the Russian Wagner mercenary group’s attempt to build contacts with the Haitian government. The spelling of the mercenary corps is “Vagner,” a common Russian phonetic spelling of the organization but one that is rarely used in material designated for public consumption. Yahoo News found previous examples of this transliteration being used in internal Defense Department maps, such those contained in an assessment of Wagner Group operations in Libya from July 24, 2020.
Another document details the proposed opening of a Russian-made weapons repair facility in the United Arab Emirates in coordination with Moscow. The UAE, an American ally in the Middle East, operates a significant amount of weaponry from Russia, most notably the Pantsir air defense system and the BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicle. It is unclear from this assessment whether refurbished military hardware would be for Russian use in Ukraine, a situation that would certainly tax Washington’s relationship with Abu Dhabi.
An alleged "CIA Intel Update" dated March 1 states that the leaders of Israel's Mossad intelligence service were egging on national protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial judicial reforms.
One printout posted on Discord contains significant technical detail about the numbers and potential failures of a specific weapon system provided by the United States to Ukraine. The document is marked “SECRET/NOFORN,” — with “NOFORN” meaning “Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals.” That is an explicit classification used to indicate intelligence information that “may not be released in any form to foreign governments, foreign nationals, foreign organizations, or non-U.S. citizens,” according to the Defense Department.
Another text suggests that the United Kingdom is planning to deploy one of the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers to the South Pacific to counter Chinese influence in the region. It also assesses the priorities of the U.K. opposition Labour Party and how Beijing would react to an incoming Labour government scrapping the South Pacific plan in order to focus resources closer to home. This is also designated for American eyes only.
Other material contained in the tranche is less sensitive, such as an assessment of efficiency of the government response to the outbreak of the Marburg virus in Equatorial Guinea or the progress of the Nigerian election.
The timing of the leaks, coming at a moment when the Ukrainian military is preparing to launch a much-anticipated offensive, and also the method of their dissemination raise many questions about how these documents were obtained and also about their veracity.
The Ukraine documents that were circulated by pro-Russian sources contained crudely photoshopped modifications to casualty figures to suggest that Ukrainian forces had suffered significantly more casualties, and Russian forces significantly fewer casualties, than had actually been assessed by American intelligence. Whoever doctored them put the estimated killed-in-action figure for Ukraine, 16,000-17,500 — in the Russian field, which originally gave 35,500–43,500 killed in action. It also transposed the digits for the Ukrainian assessment, changing 16,000-17,500 to "61,000-71,500."
Another eyebrow-raising aspect of these disclosures is that they were made via a bespoke and since-removed server. All of the materials, according to open-source analysts, can be traced back to a Discord user named “MrLucca,” who claimed to have originally received them on another, now-deleted server named for a notorious American racial epithet used to describe Black people, before reposting them onto a channel primarily about the popular video game Minecraft. The leaks apparently began in early February but only gained significant attention in the last few days. After his posting of the sensitive documents became international news, “MrLucca” deleted his account, with his final message being “ILY (short for “I love you”) bros, see you on the flipside.”
Russian intelligence has often relied on anonymous internet accounts, such as “Guccifer 2.0,” to launder hacked information, including digital correspondence belonging to the Democratic National Committee and former U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign chief, John Podesta. But that doesn’t mean “MrLucca” or the original source for the leaks aren’t Americans with access to classified intelligence.
The murkiness of where this information came from and whether or not it’s genuine has already become a big part of the story.
Ironically, pro-Russian commentators who originally saw the Ukraine files as valuable “gotchas” now doubt their authenticity after evidence of their doctoring came to light. Instead, they believe the U.S. or Ukraine released these texts as a psychological operation meant to dupe the Kremlin.
The Wall Street Journal recorded Russian military analyst Yuri Kotenok, a blogger with over 400,000 followers posting to his Telegram channel, saying: “Isn’t that leak part of a big deception plan against Moscow on the verge of the intensification of combat on the frontline?”
Meanwhile, Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior Ukrainian official, claimed the leak of the original Ukraine files was a Russian provocation to discredit Kyiv’s forthcoming counteroffensive. “It’s a bluff,” Podolyak said. “Russia is seeking any means to regain the information initiative, to attempt to influence the scenarios and plans for Ukraine’s counteroffensive.”