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Pentagon: Leaked documents a ‘very serious’ risk to security

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has reached out to top allies, convened daily meetings to assess the damage and set up a group not only to assess the scope of the information lost but review who has access to those briefings

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, on March 29, 2023.Jose Luis Magana (AP)

The online leaks of scores of highly classified documents about the Ukraine war present a “very serious” risk to national security, and senior leaders are quickly taking steps to mitigate the damage, a top Pentagon spokesman said Monday.

Chris Meagher, assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, told reporters that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin first became aware on Thursday that a number of classified briefing slides detailing the U.S. military efforts in the Ukraine war and intelligence involving other nations were leaked.

In the days since Austin was notified, he has reached out to allies, held daily meetings to assess damage and set up a group not only to assess the scope of the information lost but review who has access to those briefings. The department is looking closely at “how this type of information is distributed and to whom,” Meagher said, but would not say if steps had already been taken to tighten control over who can access it.

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 of our commitment to safeguarding intelligence and the fidelity of securing our partnerships.”

He and Meagher declined to provide specifics, including about the expanse of the release, how it happened and to which country leaders the U.S. has spoken. Patel added that there is “no question” the documents’ release present a risk to national security.

Investigators who specialize in tracking social media, including at the journalism organization Bellingcat, say the documents may have been circulating for months in private internet chats on the Discord discussion platform. Asked if the Pentagon has contacted Discord, Meagher referred questions to the Justice Department, which has opened a criminal investigation into the leaks.

The slides, which eventually were distributed on more mainstream sites such as Twitter, detail U.S. training and equipment schedules to support Ukraine, assessments of losses, what the U.S. is monitoring on key allies and strategic partners, and what moves Russia may be taking to undermine those relationships.

While the Pentagon has been careful not to authenticate the information contained in any specific document, overall “they present a very serious risk to national security and have the potential to spread disinformation,” said Meagher. “We’re being very careful and watching where this is being posted and amplified.”

The documents are labeled secret and top secret and in some cases resemble routine updates that the U.S. military’s Joint Staff would produce daily but not distribute publicly.

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