By Adam Morrow
U.S. federal agencies are scrambling to contain the diplomatic fallout after scores of classified documents pertaining to Ukraine—and other U.S. allies—were leaked online by as-yet-unknown actors.
“U.S. officials across the interagency are engaging with allies and partners at high levels over this,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said at an April 10 press briefing.
According to Patel, Washington seeks to reassure allies “of our commitment to safeguarding intelligence and the fidelity of securing our partnerships.”
The documents, most of which date from February or March of this year, initially appeared last month on online forums such as Discord and 4Chan.
But they only made headlines on April 6, when the New York Times, citing “senior Biden administration officials,” reported their appearance on Twitter and Telegram.
Both the Pentagon and Justice Department are now trying to find the source of the leaks—some of which point to U.S. spying activity—amid fears they could damage relations with allies.
“There is no question that they [the leaks] present a risk to national security,” Patel said.
Seoul: Leaks ‘Utterly False’
Comprised of dozens of pages of text and images, most leaked documents relate to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Others, however, purportedly contain classified information—which U.S. officials say may have been doctored—about key U.S. allies in Asia and the Middle East.
One document, for example, appears to give details of closed-door discussions between top South Korean officials regarding alleged U.S. pressure on Seoul to contribute more to Ukraine’s war effort.
The document’s content, and the fact that it was seemingly obtained via “signals intelligence” (intercepted communications), suggests that U.S. agencies may have spied on the government of South Korea, a longstanding ally of the United States.
On April 11, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin discussed the issue in a telephone call with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Jong-sup.
On the same day, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said that allegations that his office had been the target of U.S. spying were “utterly false.”
Any attempt to damage relations between the United States and South Korea was contrary to the latter’s “national interest,” Yoon’s office said in a statement.
Yoon is slated to visit Washington later this month for talks with U.S. President Joe Biden.
South Korean opposition figures, however, have decried alleged U.S. surveillance on government officials as a breach of the country’s national sovereignty.
When asked directly about South Korea, the State Department’s Patel stressed that the U.S. commitment to South Korea was “ironclad.”
“They are one of our most important partners in the region,” he said.
The United States, he added, was “engaging at high levels with our allies and partners … to reassure them as it relates to our commitment to safeguard intelligence and sensitive documents, as well as ensuring our commitment to the security of the partnerships that we have with these countries.”
Meanwhile, U.S. relations with Israel, long seen as a key Middle Eastern ally, may also have come under strain due to the leaks.
One leaked document appears to suggest that ongoing protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were encouraged by Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency—a claim roundly denied by Netanyahu’s office.
When asked whether the leaks might adversely affect U.S.-Israel relations, Patel emphasized the “deep partnership” between the two countries.
But he declined to give details about “private discussions” now underway between the United States and its allies, except to say they were happening “at the highest levels.”
More to Come?
The leaks also appear to have ensnared Egypt, another longstanding ally of the United States.
On April 10, the Washington Post reported that, according to one leaked document, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had ordered the production of 40,000 rockets to be covertly delivered to Russia.
The document, dated Feb. 17, further asserts that Al-Sisi ordered military officials to keep the plan secret “to avoid problems with the West.”
After the Washington Post ran the report, Egypt’s state-run Al-Ahram news agency quoted a government source as saying the claims had “no basis in truth.”
“Egypt follows a balanced policy with all international parties, with peace, stability, and development being the main determinants of this policy,” Al-Ahram quoted the official as saying.
Moscow also denied the allegation, which Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described as “the latest canard.”
“This is something we’ve been dealing with a lot lately,” he said.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are bracing for the possibility that more secret documents may yet appear online.
“We don’t know who’s behind this. We don’t know what the motive is,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on April 10.
He added: “We don’t know what else might be out there.”
Reuters contributed to this report.