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U.S. Justice Department Launches Investigation into Leaked Defense Documents

Dozens of classified U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) documents—including maps, charts, and photographs—were released on social media sites late last week, and they appear to detail U.S. and NATO aid to Ukraine. However, some of the documents may have been altered or used as part of a misinformation campaign to influence public opinion about the war, the Associated Press reported.

The documents (dated from 23 February to 1 March) are labeled secret and resemble routine updates that the U.S. military produces daily for internal use. They appear to provide details on the progress of weapons and equipment being sent into Ukraine with precise timelines and amounts—details that are usually kept private. Some of the maps of Ukraine show where troops were concentrated at the time and what kind of weapons they had available to them, NPR reported.

The documents appear to be photographs—not scans—of secret materials, and many bear the imprint of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, The New York Times reported.

The documents are not war plans and do not provide details on the Ukrainian offensive, but some inaccuracies (including significantly lower counts of Russian fatalities and higher counts of Ukrainian fatalities) have put the authenticity of the documents into question, AP noted. While Pentagon officials are quoted in various news sources confirming the documents are real, they may have been altered before their release online.

“It is very important to remember that in recent decades, the Russian special services’ most successful operations have been taking place in Photoshop,” Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate, said on Ukrainian television in response to the documents’ release. “From a preliminary analysis of these materials, we see false, distorted figures on losses on both sides, with part of the information collected from open sources.”

So far, none of the documents point to the direction of Ukraine’s anticipated counteroffensive, which analysts broadly expect to launch in the coming weeks, according to the BBC.

A new batch of allegedly classified documents appeared on social media sites—including Twitter and Telegram—on 7 April, expanding the topics beyond the war in Ukraine and detailing some American national security secrets on the Middle East and China as well, according to the Times. Analysts say that more than 100 documents may have been obtained and shared.

At least two of those documents detailed internal discussions among South Korean officials about American officials pressuring the Asian nation to help supply weapons to Ukraine—this information was reportedly partly based on intercepted communication signals, TIME reported. This hints at U.S. espionage against its diplomatic allies and could potentially strain relations.

The DOD made a formal referral to the Justice Department for an investigation into the possible leak on 7 April.

How did the documents end up on social media sites? According to Aric Toler, part of the investigative open-source intelligence group Bellingcat, the first batch of documents appear to have been posted in early March on Discord, a messaging platform popular with online gamers, but some documents may have been online even earlier.