Classified documents detailing NATO and America’s plans to support Ukraine in repelling Russia’s invasion leaked online, spurring an investigation by the Pentagon. We still don’t know how the documents have leaked to Twitter and Telegram, but they first appeared online on 4chan and, before that, a gaming discussion group.
Russia invaded Ukraine more than a year ago and for most of that time Kyiv has been on the defensive, but it’s planning an offensive push. The leaked documents, which appear to come from early March, show casualty levels and NATO plans for bolstering the Ukrainian military.
There are two different versions of the leaked documents floating around online, and one appears to have been altered to downplay the number of Russians killed while increasing the number of Ukrainian casualties. The original casualty assessment puts the numbers of Russian losses at around 35,000 while the altered document showed claims Moscow has only lost 16,000 soldiers.
According to Aric Toler, a researcher at Bellingcat, an early version of the leak appeared on 4chan on April 5. This leak contained three documents and isn’t the original source. Toler told Motherboard he found a version of the leak on an “Minecraft Discord server” that predates what’s on 4chan. The version the gaming discussion group contained 10 images, including maps Kharkiv and Kherson as well as an additional page detailing equipment that Toler hasn’t seen elsewhere. Motherboard confirmed the leak by looking at the Discord server.
In the 4chan leak, the poster appears to be sharing printed out copies of physical documents that have creases and folds in them. In 2017, NSA translator Reality Winner leaked an intelligence report about Russian interference in the 2016 election by printing out pieces of paper and walking them out of a secured space. The government was able to identify Winner as the origin of the leak by figuring out that she had printed the documents.
The White House has said it’s working on deleting social media posts that show the leak, but as of this writing there are multiple pictures of the documents on Telegram, Twitter, and other social media sites.
“Yeah, you can totally delete things from the Internet—that works perfectly and doesn’t draw attention to whatever you were trying to hide at all,” Elon Musk said on Twitter in response to a news story about the Pentagon attempting to remove the images from the internet.
This isn’t the first time military secrets have leaked onto a gaming forum. The online military simulation game War Thunder has been the source of several leaks of classified military intelligence, though these leaks pertained to specific military equipment players of those games are interested in, not information about an active war..
The fact that military secrets have landed on the internet via a gaming forum and 4chan is funny but also incredibly dangerous. The stakes in Ukraine are literally life and death. Remember that, according to the leak, tens of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians have already died.
Keeping classified intel about troop levels and movements is a primary concern of military leadership. During World War II, the U.S. military ran a propaganda campaign with the slogan “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” The Pentagon revived this campaign in March with a focus on social media. In the new poster, a U.S. Navy ship is sinking as it floats above half a dozen sea mines bearing the icons of famous social media companies including TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter.
Discord did not immediately return Motherboard's request for comment.