A string of photos that purport to be of highly classified US military documents has been the subject of a media and political furore in recent days, putting the Pentagon on high alert as they try to access and contain the leaks.
The information provided in the leaks, which have not yet been verified, reveals highly sensitive information regarding the war in Ukraine and serves as a reminder that the United States has been spying on its allies.
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Pentagon spokesman Chris Meagher said the photos “appear to show documents similar in format” to those provided to senior military leaders. However, US officials have also warned that at least some of the documents appear to be doctored.
It was unclear which documents might contain misinformation and if they could be part of a Russian misinformation operation or a US scheme to mislead Russia about Ukraine’s war plans.
The leaks have also raised a potentially embarrassing question for the US authorities about how someone could penetrate the country’s highest level of intelligence services.
Where were the documents leaked?
The photos showed creased documents placed on top of magazines and other household objects. Former officials who reviewed the photos told The New York Times newspaper they appeared to have been folded, possibly to be taken from a secure location in a pocket.
The documents bore classified markings, with some labelled top secret, the highest level of classification, and appeared to be briefing slides prepared by the US military’s chief of staff.
Some also contained the marking NOFORN, or “not releasable to foreign nationals”, meaning they cannot be shared with foreign intelligence agencies, including Five Eyes, the collection of spy agencies in the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, according to the Times.
It was still not clear how they ended up online.
“They were somewhere in the web, and where exactly, and who had access at the point, we don’t know. We simply don’t know,” Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin told a news conference on Tuesday.
Although the documents only garnered widespread attention in the last few days, the open source investigation site Bellingcat said the documents – or at least some of them – appeared to have first emerged in photos posted on the online media platform Discord for at least a month before they were reported on by the Times on April 5. Some material had appeared even earlier, in January.
In an article about the documents’ “improbable journey”, Bellingcat traced the earliest references to the leak to a now-defunct Discord server and cited three former users as saying that a large number of documents had been shared there.
What is Discord?
The social media app was co-founded in 2015 by Jason Citron, a computer programmer who wanted to create a chat application for people who play online games. The platform, which allows you to connect accounts linked to game consoles such as PlayStation or Xbox, rapidly carved out a reputation as a niche product for avid gamers.
After the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Discord saw its mainstream popularity skyrocket beyond video-gamers.
The San Francisco-based site hosts real-time voice, video and text chats for groups and describes itself as a place “where you can belong to a school club, a gaming group, or a worldwide art community”.
Users of Discord can join a server – or chat room – by searching for one, accepting an invite, or creating their own. Within each server, members can use single topic-based channels for communication.
How were the leaks spread on Discord?
In one of those channels originally created to discuss various topics, members debated the war in Ukraine. According to one member of the chat cited by The Associated Press news agency, an unidentified poster shared documents that the poster claimed were classified.
The poster would initially mix personal thoughts alongside the documents. Then, as of a few months ago, began uploading images of folded papers.
The person who said he was a forum member told the AP that another person, identified online only as “Lucca”, shared the documents in a different Discord chat. From there, they appear to have been spread until the media picked them up.
The details of this theory have not been verified.
What has Discord said?
In a company statement, Discord said they are cooperating with law enforcement.
“As this remains an active investigation, we cannot provide further comment at this time,” the statement said.
It is not the first time Discord has been embroiled in controversy.
In 2017, white supremacists used the platform to plan “the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, US, where a counterprotester was killed.
In May 2022, a teenager posted racist memes and recorded his thoughts on Discord before shooting 10 people dead at a grocery store in Buffalo, US.
Are there other social media platforms involved?
The posts appear to have remained unnoticed on Discord for several weeks before being picked up by users of the online imageboard, 4chan.
The documents also rapidly spread to a pro-Russian channel on the messaging app Telegram and then Twitter.