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How will the Ukraine document investigation work? A former DOJ 'leak czar' explains

The Justice Department is working with the Pentagon to investigate how classified U.S. documents about the war in Ukraine ended up on social media platforms.
Patrick Semansky
The Justice Department is working with the Pentagon to investigate how classified U.S. documents about the war in Ukraine ended up on social media platforms.

Updated April 10, 2023 at 11:43 AM ET

Days after classified U.S. documents on the war in Ukraine surfaced on social media, the Pentagon and Justice Department are scrambling to figure out how they got there, what damage they could cause and whether any more might be on the way.

To recap: A small number of secret military documents were found on Twitter and Telegram on Wednesday, and researchers and social media sleuths have since discovered more on other sites — some posted as early as March 1.

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The documents viewed by NPR appear to be briefing slides — put together daily for top Pentagon and national security officials — focused on Ukraine, with maps and charts pertaining to their troops and weapons, national security correspondent Greg Myre told Morning Edition.

Their discovery comes as Ukraine prepares to launch a counteroffensive sometime this spring, and it's not yet clear what kind of impact the new material could have on the trajectory of the war.

While there's still a lot we don't know, former Justice Department "leak czar" Brandon Van Grack says national security damage has certainly been done.

"The only debate now is how much damage there was and the threat is still live," he says. "We don't know if the individual or individuals still have access to classified information and whether there could be additional leaks, and so right now this has to be the top priority."

Van Grack held multiple national security-focused roles at the Justice Department, including leading the investigation into Edward Snowden after the then-National Security Agency contractor leaked thousands of documents in 2013. Van Grack is now a partner at Morrison & Foerster, which represents Discord — one of the sites where the Ukraine documents were shared.

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He spoke with Morning Edition's A Martínez on Monday about what could be happening behind the scenes as law enforcement and intelligence officials work together to try to plug the leak and remediate the damage.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On who is doing what

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The FBI along with the DOJ is identifying what third parties, what companies may have relevant information, and issuing search warrants and subpoenas and that's probably what's been occurring through the weekend. The intelligence committee in coordination with the the FBI is also reviewing the leaked documents to see if they can identify ... who had access to them and any other identifying features.

On where he would start if he were in charge

There are multiple places to start, which is from the FBI, DOJ perspective, all of the reporting of companies and individuals who may have posted this or where it may have been posted, you're collecting that evidence. At the same time, you are closely coordinating with the intelligence community. There are multiple documents, and there are images in those documents ... and I think you are culling through that information to try to narrow the group of individuals who may have had access to it.

On the balance between plugging the leak and gathering evidence

You're walking and chewing gum at the same time. Right now the focus needs to be, and is, identifying who this person or these persons are, period. That has to be the priority. As that's going on, to the extent that they do identify someone, then you're starting to put together a charging document and figure out that aspect of it. But right now the priority has to be the identification and ensuring that there are no further leaks coming.

On whether there's any overlap with the DOJ's investigation into Biden and Trump's handling of classified documents

Because of special counsel appointments we don't know exactly what the overlap is, but there should be some overlap of those individuals and expertise. And so certainly there's at least some subset of those persons who have been sprinting for the last few months on those cases and now would probably need to do some sort of pivot to focus on this for the time being.

On why the public should care about the handling of classified documents

This case shows why it is so critical that we enforce criminally the laws that make it unlawful to willfully retain or disclose classified information. There's millions of Americans that have access to ... untold amounts of classified information, and they can't all be monitored. And the way that you control that access, and ensure that it's not disclosed to people that don't have access, is to enforce these laws.

Simone Popperl edited the audio interview.

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Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.