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What We’re Learning From the Leaked Military Documents

What We’re Learning From the Leaked Military Documents
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What We’re Learning From the Leaked Military Documents

What the top-secret documents might mean for the future of the war in Ukraine.

[MUSIC PLAYING] This transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors. Please review the episode audio before quoting from this transcript and email [email protected] with any questions.

Sabrina Tavernise

From “The New York Times,” I’m Sabrina Tavernise. And this is “The Daily“. Tonight, growing concerns as more and more Top Secret Classified Pentagon documents are being discovered posted on social media.

A week ago, the world discovered that dozens of classified documents from the American government had been leaked online.

Archived Recording

It is a mystery who leaked a trove of Classified and Top Secret documents about the war in Ukraine.

The Pentagon says the leaked materials pose a serious risk to security.

Sabrina Tavernise

They included highly sensitive information about the war in Ukraine.

Archived Recording

The leaked documents expose the United States for spying not just on its adversaries, but also its allies.

Sabrina Tavernise

And in the days since, there’s been fallout and damaging revelations about American spying.

Archived Recording

Very interesting how these documents have specifically emerged just at a time of heightened speculation as to when Ukraine’s counter offensive may begin.

Sabrina Tavernise

Today, my colleague David Sanger tells us what we’re learning from the leak and what it might mean for the future of the war.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

It’s Thursday, April 13.

So David, it’s not every day that we have a leak of confidential documents from inside the US government, and particularly in the middle of a war. The war in Ukraine. What did you think when you heard about these documents?

David Sanger

Well, Sabrina, the first thing that came to my mind was the long list of other leaks in US history frequently involving wars or intelligence. So the mother of all these leaks was the Pentagon Papers that was in the early 1970s. And that was a history of the Vietnam War that the Pentagon had put together and that Daniel Ellsberg turned over to “The New York Times“.

But more recently there were the Wikileaks in 2010. That involved thousands of State Department cables and of course notes from the military about the war in Iraq. And then three years later, there was the huge leak from Edward Snowden, who was a contractor for the National Security Agency and released details of some of the most secret intelligence programs, hacking programs that the NSA has underway. So every one of these leaks of course, had a huge impact on US policy, on politics, sometimes on US intelligence methods.

They often included massive amounts of data, thousands of pages. This leak, which came out last week, was far smaller. We’ve only seen at this point a few dozen pages of material. But it’s all much more current.

Sabrina Tavernise

So more current. What do you mean by that?

David Sanger

Well, Sabrina, in the case of the Pentagon Papers and these other leaks, by the time we saw the documents, they were usually years old. In this case, these are PowerPoint slides prepared for the Joint Chiefs and other military officers that are just a month, a month and a half old. And thus, they are very salient to what’s happening on the battlefield today. And that’s, in some ways, what has got so many people in the US government so worked up. Because this could be operationally helpful, tactically helpful to the Russians in a way that the previous leaks that we’ve seen were not.

Sabrina Tavernise

And so how did these documents get out. Do we know?

David Sanger

Well, from the looks of it, someone probably printed out pages of this material, got it out of the Pentagon — although, we don’t know that for sure — and snapped pictures of it probably with a cell phone because you can see the edges of the desk that the pages were on. And there’s a hunting magazine and other such things around. And then those pictures were posted fairly quickly within a few days on a social media platform called Discord.

Sabrina Tavernise

So Discord, if I’m not mistaken, this is an app that’s popular among gamers, popular among young people on the internet. It’s something that people use to communicate with each other online.

David Sanger

Exactly. And it stayed there for a month with barely anybody in the public noticing.

Sabrina Tavernise

Just out there on the internet?

David Sanger

That’s right. I mean, the internet is a giant flow, a giant river. And the thought that you would see a couple of little fish that are swimming downstream is pretty small. So people didn’t really notice this until just a week ago when it started ending up on a bunch of other channels, including Russian Telegram channels. And that’s when my colleagues at the time started noticing that there are these documents that are out there and they appear to be real Classified Secret and Top Secret Pentagon briefing notes on the state of the war. But it took a while to sort of trace it back to its origin.

Sabrina Tavernise

OK, so David let’s talk about what’s actually in the documents. What do they say?

David Sanger

Well, all of the big headlines initially, Sabrina, were what we learned about the war in Ukraine. And those come on pages that have lots of maps and charts of air defenses and so forth. A lot of this stuff is very much of the moment tactical information about the war, how it’s going, assessments of how quickly the Ukrainians are burning through ammunition and we’ll need more, and how quickly the Russians are doing it. But the most interesting thing is that it’s information from inside the Russian military and it’s marked up on the top of some of these pages that it’s based on what’s called SI, is the abbreviation at the top, which means signals intelligence.

So that tells you that it comes from listening in on the Russians and military, and to some degree, their decision makers. And then there’s some information from inside the Ukrainian military suggesting that there’s signals intelligence from them as well.

Sabrina Tavernise

OK, so it’s this information from inside Russia and inside Ukraine. What do we learn about Ukrainian capabilities in the war right now?

David Sanger

Well, the first thing we learned, Sabrina, is that while American officials are celebrating how tough the Ukrainians are, how successful they’ve been so far. And that’s all true. they’re also worrying about what these next few months will look like. For example, there’s one document that suggests that Ukraine will run out of its air defense capability in early May. In fact, an explicit date May 3 because of concerns about how quickly the Ukrainians are burning through the air defense missiles that they require.

Sabrina Tavernise

Wow, that’s soon and that’s very, very detailed.

David Sanger

Very detailed and dangerous because suddenly the Russians know exactly what the vulnerability is and when it will arise.

Sabrina Tavernise

Right.

David Sanger

And there’s another example of a future potential Ukrainian weakness. You’ll remember the Ukrainians are using long range rockets. Something called HIMARS, that President Biden agreed to give them in the middle of last year. It’s a really critical system for the Ukrainians because it’s highly accurate and it allows them to hit major targets behind Russian lines from a considerable distance.

Now, they are burning through HIMARS ammunition much faster than we imagined and much faster than we can make replacements.

Sabrina Tavernise

So, very bad news for Ukraine. And potentially, good news for Russia in terms of the balance in the war.

David Sanger

Well, that’s right, it is bad news. And it becomes particularly important because the Ukrainians are planning this major spring counteroffensive. And this calls into question whether they’ve got lined up the stuff they need to make that counteroffensive work.

Sabrina Tavernise

What do we learn about Russia, David? What are the documents tell us about what’s happening inside Russia?

David Sanger

Well, one of the things we learned, Sabrina, is that the US knows in real time when Russian strikes will happen and frequently where they’ll happen.

Sabrina Tavernise

Wow.

David Sanger

That tells you that the US is really plugged in to the Russian military and that all of the Russian efforts to encrypt conversations and protect communications have pretty much been failures. But the documents also include a lot of descriptions of conversations with the Russian civilian leadership and with the military. And that suggests the United States also has ways of listening in to the people around Putin.

Though, it’s impossible to know how or who. And a lot, of course, as I said before, seems to be sourced to signals intelligence. So that means we’re intercepting their actual communications. That were hacking into their systems essentially. It doesn’t mean we don’t have any human sources left in Russia, but it tells you that a lot of this has been obtained through cyber and digital intercepts and not necessarily from human spies.

Sabrina Tavernise

Got it. So we’re plugged in in a digital technology way. And that potentially is also quite good for the Russians, that it’s surfaced in these documents, because they can see where their leaks are, right? They can ferret them out and close them down, seal up their systems.

David Sanger

Well, they can try but it’s not quite that simple. First of all, the documents don’t tell you exactly where they’re getting this data from. That’s clearly been filtered out. But secondly, the Russians may also think that this is somehow a CIA plant. That it’s disinformation made to freak them out. And so they may not believe it.

Sabrina Tavernise

OK, so the leak may not actually result in Russia being able to plug the holes. But the big takeaway here overall is that these documents show just how deeply the US is plugged in to Russia’s war effort.

David Sanger

That’s right. But the other thing we’ve learned, Sabrina, and I know this will shock you, is that not only are we spying on the Russians, we’re also spying on our own allies, our own partners. Or I should say, we’re still spying on them.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Sabrina Tavernise

We’ll be right back.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

So David, you just told me that the documents also tell us that the US had been spying on its allies, its partners in the war. Tell me about that?

David Sanger

Well, let’s start with Ukraine. It’s pretty clear from these documents that the United States is listening in on the military leadership and some of the political leadership in Ukraine, trying to understand their decisions. Now, that’s not a shock. There’s been tension between the US and the Ukrainians at various points, even while the US is training them and equipping them and trying to give them the targeting information that they need to be successful.

But it’s always going to create a bit of mistrust between President Biden and Zelensky or people in the next tiers down because they know that the United States is listening in on them just as actively as it’s listening in on the Russians.

Sabrina Tavernise

And what other countries? Who else is the US spying on?

David Sanger

Well, we also learned that the US is deeply into the South Korean National Security Council and deeply inside Israel’s Mossad, the spying agency. And those countries are both sort of fence sitters. They’ve publicly avoided committing to providing much help to the Ukrainians, even if they’ve done some help on the side. And so what’s particularly important and potentially damaging here is the documents reveal these internal conversations that are happening among the top leaders in these countries about the war or about the United States.

Sabrina Tavernise

So, what do the documents say about South Korea and Israel? What do the documents tell us?

David Sanger

Well, let’s start with South Korea, Sabrina. I was just there a couple of weeks ago doing some reporting. And when I met senior South Korean officials and I said, look, you’re one of the largest producers in the world of a kind of ammunition the Ukrainians need — they’re called 155 millimeter artillery rounds — are you providing them to the Ukrainians? And they would hedge and haw and really wouldn’t answer the question and say, well, it’s very difficult for us. We have policies about providing weapons into a war zone. And of course, they really don’t want to anger the Russians.

And so then we get these documents, which are dated before my visit to South Korea. And what do we discover? That, yes, there’s a big fight going on within their national security council. That they’re afraid that President Biden is going to call President Yoon of South Korea and demand that he provide more ammunition, and that this would put them on the spot. It’s delicate because Yoon, himself, is coming to Washington in just a few weeks for a big state visit. The first state visit of an Asian leader to the Biden administration.

So this was all embarrassing. And then you turn the page and what do you discover? There is one page that has got basically shipping details of the 155 millimeter rounds, 330,000 of them, and when they would be sea lifted from South Korea, when they would likely get to Ukraine, and in great bureaucratic fashion how much it was going to cost to send them from one to the other.

Sabrina Tavernise

So what does that mean?

David Sanger

Well, it doesn’t spell out if that shipment actually went, Sabrina. But it could mean that the South Koreans were quietly providing help or thinking about it and just didn’t want it to be publicized. And now here it is out on Twitter and Discord for the whole world to see.

Sabrina Tavernise

And David, what about Israel?

David Sanger

They’ve been similar to South Korea. They make a big case that they don’t get involved in active wars. But, of course, they’re very concerned about their own sovereignty and territory that they believe is their own. But one of the documents lays out an American set of scenarios of events that could happen, like the Iranians taking in aircraft from Russia as part of the Iran/Russia deals that are going on these days that might actually force the Israelis to get off the fence and provide more aid to Ukraine.

And it specified what Israeli weapons systems they want. So here we see the US speculating about what conditions might be exploited to draw the Israelis into arming the Ukrainians and getting them off the fence.

Sabrina Tavernise

So in both of these cases, David, both South Korea and Israel, the US is trying to kind use a spyglass to see what’s coming in terms of helping the Ukrainians.

David Sanger

That’s right. And the reason that these are embarrassing is that these internal deliberations are politically sensitive in the countries that they’re happening in, but they’re also central to trying to convince a public in South Korea or Israel that the United States is a trustworthy ally. And people ask the question, well, if that’s the case, why are they listening in on our conversations?

And there’s a question of whether or not the leak, itself, makes it harder for these countries to help Ukraine, because Ukraine needs the artillery shells and South Korea makes them. And Ukraine needs anti-missile systems and Israel makes them.

Sabrina Tavernise

Right. So the danger would be that with the publics of those countries, it will be more difficult to do what these governments are doing kind of on the sly?

David Sanger

That’s right. And when you see it in black and white in a US document that’s stamped Top Secret on it, it sort of leaves very little doubt about what’s going on.

Sabrina Tavernise

So David, what’s the upshot of all these revelations, I mean, in terms of what the Pentagon is actually worried about in the war in Ukraine?

David Sanger

Well, you know, Sabrina, what struck me the most as I was paging through these documents is that our government simply does not know where this war is headed. That, of course, it’s worried about a stalemate. And General Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that publicly. But there’s more pessimism, more apprehension that sort of comes off the pages of these documents than officials show in public, because, of course, they always want to be supportive of Zelensky.

And in that respect, it’s kind of echoes with the Pentagon Papers, right? Because that was contrasting the public optimism oh, yeah, we’re doing great in Vietnam with the public recognition that we were losing the war.

Sabrina Tavernise

Right.

David Sanger

But there’s something else that I noticed in these documents that really struck me, which is the degree to which the government spends its time thinking about the Wild Card event, the Black Swan that could change everything.

Sabrina Tavernise

For example?

David Sanger

Well, there’s one document that’s full of these what-if scenarios. It was written just about a year to the day after the invasion happened. So what if Vladimir Putin is killed? Could a much more hardline nationalist leader emerge? It doesn’t answer the question, but it’s interesting that they’re asking it. What if President Zelenskyy in Ukraine is killed? What happens to the leadership?

What happens if the Ukrainians get a hold of a missile that has the reach to fly into Moscow and maybe hit the Kremlin. How would the Russians respond? Would this lead Putin to set off a tactical nuclear weapon? An issue we spent a lot of time last year worried that he might do. It didn’t answer these questions.

But the very fact that we’re asking them at such high levels in classified sessions tells you that the government wants to be ready if the surprising happens here.

Sabrina Tavernise

In other words, tells us how little we actually know about where this thing is going, right?

David Sanger

Well, you know, wars, stock markets, hurricanes — hard to predict the path for any of them.

Sabrina Tavernise

Right. David, stepping back here for a second, we started this conversation talking about leaks in the context of history, right? And you said that this leak was smaller, but more current. Did those leaks, the Pentagon Papers, the Wikileaks — did, in a lot of ways, change the course of history, change policy and politics in the United States. Will this one?

David Sanger

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, Sabrina, over the past couple of days. And I don’t think it will. I think this leak is big news and gives us a sense of the government’s doubts, as we’ve discussed. But the previous leaks that we talked about seem to have an ideological motivation, right? Daniel Ellsberg knew that the government was lying to the American people about the progress of the war and was trying to stay in the war despite evidence that it wasn’t working. And he wanted to reveal that.

You can think that he’s a hero. You can think that he’s a traitor. But there was an ideological motive there. Edward Snowden believed the government was illegally using the NSA’s powers to listen in on Americans. There was some evidence of that, but there was also a fair bit of evidence that most of its focus was abroad, which is where the intelligence agencies are supposed to be focusing.

When you go through these documents, you don’t really see — at least I didn’t see — an ideological edge. And if you believe that, in fact, this was posted first on a gaming website, it’s entirely possible that this was more like barroom argument over the internet than it was ideology, which may tell you more about this era in America than we really want to know.

Sabrina Tavernise

Right.

David Sanger

So my guess is that it will have immediate impact, particularly because the Ukrainians will have to change some of their operational plans, because the Russians will be searching for the ways the United States is listening in on them.

But I’m not sure that it will lead to the kind of changes that we remember. There doesn’t seem to be much division inside the United States government about the validity, the rightness of supporting the Ukrainians.

The arguments that we discover inside these papers are more about whether the Ukrainians can win, what it will take, what kind of aid they’re going to need to get through this next very rough spring and through the year, and whether in the end, there is a negotiated settlement to this war. Because the question we have to ask about this war and that sits underneath all of these documents is tell me how this ends.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Sabrina Tavernise

David, thank you.

David Sanger

Thank you, Sabrina.

Sabrina Tavernise

On Wednesday night, “The Washington Post” reported that the source of the leaked documents is an American citizen, a gun enthusiast in his 20s who works at a US military base. The post cited two people who were members of the online Discord group the leaker was a part of. The members told “The Post” that the leaker shared the documents not as a whistleblower who opposed US policy on the war, but to showcase his access to secret information.

We’ll be right back.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Here’s what else you should know today.

Archived Recording

Today, I’m pleased to announce that EPA is proposing the strongest ever federal pollution technology standards for both cars and trucks.

Sabrina Tavernise

On Wednesday, the Biden administration proposed new climate regulations designed to ensure that by the year 2032, two-thirds of the new cars sold be all electric.

Archived Recording

Together, today’s actions will accelerate our ongoing transition to a clean vehicles future.

Sabrina Tavernise

The plan is the most ambitious US climate regulation to date and would cause nothing short of a revolution in the auto industry. Vehicles that are fully electric accounted for just under 6 percent of all new cars sold in the US last year. And —

Archived Recording

The message for all the people in Nashville who decided to expel us — you can’t expel hope.

Sabrina Tavernise

The second of two Black Democrats expelled from the Tennessee House was reinstated a week after he was removed by the House’s Republican majority. Local officials in Memphis voted Wednesday to reinstate Justin Pearson. Earlier this week, the other Democrat, Justin Jones, was also reinstated. The two had been banished for supporting gun control protesters during House proceedings. Their expulsion was an act of political retribution, but it ended up propelling them to national fame.

Archived Recording

You can’t expel our voice. You sure can’t expel our fight. We look forward to continuing to fight.

Sabrina Tavernise

Today’s episode was produced by Diana Nguyen, Will Reid, Mary Wilson, and Luke Vander Ploeg. It was edited by Lisa Chow and MJ Davis Lin, fact checked by Susan Lee, contains original music by Marion Lozano and Dan Powell, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Special thanks to Julian Barnes. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

That’s it for “The Daily“. I’m Sabrina Tavernise. See you tomorrow.

What We’re Learning From the Leaked Military Documents

A week ago, the world discovered that dozens of classified documents from the American government had been leaked online, including highly sensitive information about Russia’s war in Ukraine and damaging revelations on American spying abroad.

David E. Sanger, a national security correspondent for The Times, explains the contents of the leak and what it might mean for the war.

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