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Mr. Chris Meagher, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Holds a Press Briefing

ASSISTANT TO THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE (PA) CHRIS MEAGHER: All right, thanks, Roger. Thanks, everybody, for joining us here this afternoon. I'll get to the disclosure in a minute, but at the top, just wanted to say that we are closely monitoring Beijing's actions.

As we have said, there's no reason for Beijing to turn the Tsai transit, which was consistent with long-standing U.S. policy, into something it is not or use it as a pretext to overreact. While we will continue to maintain open channels of communication with the PRC, the PRC continues to decline requests for engagement with the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lines between our militaries are particularly important in scenarios like this, and we call on Beijing to engage us in this channel. We will not be deterred from operating safely and responsibly in the seas and skies of the Western Pacific consistent with international law. And in keeping with that, the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group and a Marine amphibious readiness group continue to conduct routine operations in the Philippine Sea, and will remain in the region.

Now, I know there's been a lot happening over the last 72 hours or so. We've been processing this information all weekend, and wanted to give you the latest regarding photos of the purported documents that are now online as part of what appears to be an unauthorized disclosure of classified material. We put out a brief statement on Friday and another brief statement on Sunday, but just wanted to elaborate a little further here. As I'm sure you can imagine, I'm very limited in what I can say but we wanted to give you as much of an update as possible, and then I'm happy to take your questions for a few minutes.

The Department of Defense's highest priority is the defense of our nation and our national security. We're not going to get into the validity of the purported documents posted online, but a Pentagon team continues to review and assess the veracity of the photographed documents that are circulating on social media sites and that appear in some cases to contain sensitive and highly-classified material.

These photos appear to show documents similar in format to those used to provide daily updates to our senior leaders on Ukraine and Russia-related operations, as well as other intelligence updates. Some of these images appear to have been altered. We've been in close touch with the White House and with interagency partners on this issue, and an interagency effort has been set up with a focus on assessing the impact these photographed documents could potentially have on U.S. national security and on our allies and partners. The Department of Defense is working around the clock to look at the scope and scale of the distribution, the assessed impact and our mitigation measures.

We're still investigating how this happened, as well as the scope of the issue. There have been steps to take a closer look at how this type of information is distributed and to whom.

We are also still trying to assess what might be out there. We, of course, condemn any unauthorized disclosure of classified information, and we're taking this very seriously.

A few more details for you: The Secretary was initially briefed on the unauthorized disclosure on the morning of April 6th and received updates throughout the course of the day. On April 7th, the Secretary began convening senior leaders on a daily basis to discuss the unauthorized disclosures. At his direction, the Department stood up a cross-department effort to make sure that we were assessing those potential impacts, engaging our allies and partners, along with the Hill, in determining the way ahead. Secretary Austin will continue to be briefed regularly as things develop.

Over the weekend and into today, U.S. officials have engaged with allies and partners and have informed national security committees in Congress about the disclosure. As we said on Friday, we have reviewed this -- or, excuse me. As we said on Friday, we have referred this matter to the Department of Justice, which has opened a criminal investigation. We would review -- refer you to DOJ for any information on what that investigation might look like -- any details on that.

Finally, I'd just -- want to encourage you to be mindful not just about the impact of reposting these photos but of the reporting around the photos and remind you that -- to be mindful of reporting carefully on this subject.

Disclosure of sensitive classified material can have tremendous implications not only for our national security, but could lead to people losing their lives. The Secretary and Department of Defense and the United States government take this apparent unauthorized disclosure extremely seriously and this is a top priority for us.

That's all I have off the top, so we can go ahead and take a few questions here.

STAFF: Okay, sir. Thank you very much. Tara from AP?

Q: Hi, thanks for doing this. First, just how bad is this leak? How much damage has been done? And I realize you're still assessing this but is DOD already taking steps to tighten control over who has access to these briefings and the briefing slides? And then I have one other.

MR. MEAGHER: So we are still investigating how this happened, in addition to the scope of the issue. There have been steps to take a closer look at how the information is distributed and to whom. You know, any distribution of highly sensitive classified material is something that we take very seriously.

And so we're taking this very seriously and, you know, that's why this has the full attention of the Secretary and of this department. It's why we're reviewing and assessing the circulation of these documents on social media sites and why this interagency effort has been stood up.

Q: Okay. And on one of the slides that has been posted, was DOD caught off guard by assessments that the UAE may be forming a closer relationship with Russia's FSB to undermine U.S. and UK intelligence operations?

MR. MEAGHER: So these slides are highly classified and contain sensitive information. Because of that, I'm not going to get into the specifics of what is contained on these slides.

STAFF: Okay, great. Thank you. Jen from Fox News?

Q: Chris, can you just explain how it is that this was on the Internet 40 days ago and nobody saw it? And what does it tell you in terms of your retracing? Have you narrowed who may be behind it, since it appeared on a gaming site? It -- how is it different from past leaks, whether it was Snowden or WikiLeaks?

MR. MEAGHER: So this is something that the department is actively reviewing. As I said, this is something that the Department of Justice is investigating as a criminal investigation. As I -- as I mentioned earlier, you know, as these documents circulate online, I would like to highlight that they present a very serious risk to national security and have the potential to spread disinformation.

So, you know, we're being very careful and watching where this is being promoted and amplified and we're going to continue to coordinate efforts to determine the damage. That's something we're still looking into. We're still coordinating efforts to determine the impact these documents might have on our national security going forward.

So there's still a lot that we have to review and assess but that review and assessment is ongoing.

Q: And are there more than 100 documents, Chris?

MR. MEAGHER: I'm not going -- I'm not going to get into the specific numbers of what we think we might -- what might be out there. It's something that we continue to take a close look at.

STAFF: Okay, great. Thank you, Jen. Dan Lamothe, Washington Post?

Q: Thank you, Chris, for your time today. One follow-up -- can you clarify the degree to which the Defense Department has engaged with Discord, Twitter, Telegram, et cetera? Have you asked them to take down slides? What kind of response have you received on that?

And then can you speak a bit more about this daily update that the Defense Secretary and others are getting? Who else is involved? How's it coordinated? Any kind of details you can provide there? Thank you.

MR. MEAGHER: Yeah, so to your first question, I'd mostly refer you to DOJ, who's investigating this matter, and -- but again, a reminder -- I'd urge caution in promoting or amplifying any of these documents online, but for anything else, I'd point you to DOJ on that piece.

In terms of who we're coordinating with, who the Secretary is convening, you know, these are organizations within the Department of Defense that convene regularly on a number of different topics, including, you know, my shop, Public Affairs, the Legislative Affairs team, Policy, the Office of General Counsel, I&S, Joint Staff, and others. So those are just some of the departments within the Department that we're having these ongoing discussions with.

Obviously, we've also stood up an interagency effort focused on assessing the impact, obviously engaged with the White House and the NSC, ODNI, and the State Department, just to name a few.

STAFF: Okay, thanks, Dan. We'll move on to Felicia Schwartz from Financial Times.

Q: Thank you. Two questions.

One, do you think you'll be able to make public any of your findings about who might be behind this or how widespread the leaks are? And do you have a sense at this stage of whether it's one person or multiple people behind the documents that have been put out?

And I guess lastly, you said some of them have been altered. Can you be any more specific about how many or what percentage have been altered?

MR. MEAGHER: To your first question, you know, I think the Department is actively reviewing this matter. We've made the referral to the Department of Justice, which has initiated their criminal investigation. I would point you to them but, you know, I'm not going to have any more on the specifics on how this might have originated or investigative steps, and I'm not going to get ahead of their investigation or speculate on that.

On the second, you know, I would just urge caution, as it does appear that some slides have been doctored. I think there's been a decent amount of public reporting on that. And beyond that, I'm not going to classify specifically what, you know, the veracity of some of these photos.

STAFF: Okay, thank you. Listen, before we head over, we're trying to limit our questions just to one so we can get through our list here in the time we have allotted. So with that, Tony Capaccio from Bloomberg.

Q: Hi, Chris. Thanks for doing this. Two quick questions. When you say these are highly-classified, at what level? Were these T.S., SCI, NOFORN?

MR. MEAGHER: Yeah, sorry. I didn't realize your question was over.

I'm not going to get into those details. I would say regardless of the situation, any leak of classified information is deeply damaging and hurts trust. I'm just not going to get into more specific details on the classification there.

Q: Oh, okay. Were these part of a wider distribution network since January than had been prior to -- that -- that had been prior to January? In other words, was with the distribution link or -- was it -- was it open wider in January -- in the -- prior months? And is that a possible culprit?

MR. MEAGHER: You mean in terms of -- can you explain your question a little more?

Q: Yeah. Yeah. Between February, the invasion, and January, was there a tighter distribution network of these documents? Were it loose -- it loosened in Jan -- at the end of January into February and March, where more people had access to these documents than they might've prior to January, say?

MR. MEAGHER: I'm not going to get into -- to those details. What I can tell you is that we're investigating how this happened, as well as the scope of the issue. That includes taking steps to take a closer look at exactly how this type of information is distributed and to whom. But beyond that, I'm not going to get into anything more specific there.

Thanks, Tony.

Q: Very good, thank you.

STAFF: Thanks, Tony. Eric Schmitt, New York Times?

Q: Hi, Chris. By now, you've been able to look at these documents and determine, you know, where they came from, if they're coming from a single briefing book, perhaps through someone like General Milley. Can you tell us, you know, is this all part of one collected set of documents, perhaps for someone of the Chairman's rank? And then second, what is the -- who is heading this interagency review for us, to kind of looking at the, you know, looking at the damage this may have caused?

MR. MEAGHER: Yeah, so I think the Department of Defense is in the lead, in collaboration with the White House and NSC and the State Department and ODNI and other intel agencies. I -- and apologies. I don't remember the first question.

Q: If this had to do with -- you've now been able -- people have been able to take a look at these documents that are out there now. They appear to be from almost like a briefing book prepared for somebody like the Chairman or somebody else senior ranking. Can you give us some sense, given what you've seen so far, who would receive these kind of documents?

MR. MEAGHER: Yeah, these are documents that, you know, are used by a variety of people and departments within the Department of Defense to inform their work, and beyond the Department of Defense, frankly, to inform their work and to provide intelligence updates to help us do our jobs. So without going into, you know, any further specifics, that's probably how I'd classify it.

STAFF: Okay, next, we'll go to Nick from PBS.

Q: Thanks, Roger. Thanks, Chris.

I know you won't talk about the content of the slides, but as has been widely reported, there are tactical and operational details when it comes to the war in Ukraine and Ukrainian units. So has anything changed with communication with Ukraine? Have you spoken to Ukrainian colleagues? And have you either done some reassurance or mitigation of some of these details? And the more strategic question: Have any U.S. allies who these documents refer to reached out to the Secretary or to OSD? Have you had any discussions with those allies who the documents reveal some information about?

MR. MEAGHER: Yeah, what I would say to -- to the second question is that, you know, we -- the Department and other U.S. officials are engaging with allies and partners at high levels to reassure them of our commitment to safeguarding intelligence and fidelity to our security partnerships. Those conversations began over the weekend and are ongoing because as you mentioned, we're not going to get into the sensitive information contained on these purported documents. I'm not going to speculate on impact on the battlefield, but I will say that, you know, the Ukrainians have demonstrated their capability and competence in this war.

The President and the Secretary have both made clear that the United States is going to be with them for as long it takes, and we're going to continue to work to provide them with the capabilities, with the ammunition, with the equipment and with the training that they need to be successful in defense of their sovereign territory, so that commitment continues.

STAFF: Great, thank you. Next, we'll go to Idrees from Reuters.

Q: Hey, really quick, in the conversations that you guys have had with allies, are you apologizing for spying on them, or are you explaining where the leaks came from? And how would you characterize the investigation so far? Do you believe you're making progress in determining where the leak came from?

MR. MEAGHER: Thanks, Idrees. I'm not going to characterize the conversations that we're having with allies and partners beyond generally saying that those conversations are underway and ongoing and happening at high levels throughout government, including here at the Department of Defense.

And apologies -- these two-part questions are getting to me. What's your second question?

Q: Well, just, do you believe you have made progress in the investigation to figure out where the leak came from?

MR. MEAGHER: Yeah, so as I said, you know, we've begun an interagency effort to review the national security implications of the disclosure, to review our processes moving forward. We have referred this matter to the Department of Justice, and the DOJ has opened a criminal investigation. And I would point you to them for any questions on the investigation on who might be behind this.

STAFF: Okay, great, thank you, Idrees. We're running short on time, so let's try to keep it to one single question moving forward. Nancy Youssef, Wall Street Journal?

Q: Thank you very much. I just have a couple of clarifying questions. This has come up before. I don't understand who precisely -- you've made reference to a Pentagon team -- who precisely is leading that Pentagon team? How many people are in it? Who do they report to? And what precisely are they doing?

A lot of these questions that have been asked so far, you've referred to the Justice Department, and I don't quite understand what this Pentagon team is doing and how that relates at all to the -- what Justice is doing.

MR. MEAGHER: Well, I'd point you to the Justice on what they may or may not be doing. This team, as I mentioned, is a coordinated effort among several different components of DOD -- Legislative Affairs, Public Affairs, Policy, OGC, I&S, the Joint Staff.

And this team is really working to get our arms around everything that has to do with this potential -- you know -- or this distribution. That's reviewing and assessing the veracity of the photographed documents that are circulating on social media, it's assessing the national security implications, it is making sure that we're engaging with members of Congress, and it's making sure that we're engaging with allies and partners.

So it's kind of the comprehensive effort that the department is taking to wrap our arms around what happened, what may have happened, and the way ahead in terms of our response. And I would say that that's -- coordinated effort is reporting, you know, directly to the Secretary.

Q: Who is leading that team?

MR. MEAGHER: It's a joint effort --

Q: No, no, no, I mean a name. Who is leading that team?

MR. MEAGHER: I'm just not going to get into more specifics than that.

STAFF: Okay, thank you. Moving on to Lara from Politico.

Q: Hi, can you hear me?

MR. MEAGHER: Hi, Lara.

Q: Thanks for doing this call. I just wanted to ask you: Who all has access to these documents? I mean, does this have to be someone from the U.S., a U.S. DOD official, or is -- anyone from the outside U.S. government or potentially a foreign nation, do they even have access to this kind of material?

MR. MEAGHER: I'm not going to classify for you exactly the universe of people who have access to the -- this material. I will just say, you know, that it is highly classified sensitive material that people in DOD, certainly in other aspects of the U.S. government, use to inform their work.

STAFF: Okay, thank you. We have time for just a few more here. Carla from VOA?

Q: Hey, thanks for doing this. Two quick clarifications. One, to Jen's question, you wouldn't say specifically how many documents have been shared but can you give us a better idea on the scope of this? I mean, can we say, you know, as many as 100? Without getting specific, just give us some more detail on the scope of that. That's number one.

And then number two, you said you'd talked to allies. Sabrina mentioned that as well. Was Turkey one of these allies that you've spoken to about this? Because they were specifically mentioned in the documents. And when you had that conversation, was there also a conversation about the strike in Iraq over the weekend?

MR. MEAGHER: Thanks, Carla. 

So in terms of the scope, I'm just not going to get into any more specifics. We continue to review and assess both the veracity and kind of the scope of what we're looking at there. So I'm just not going to have anything further for you on that.

In terms of our allies and partners engagement, I'm not going to get into the specifics of who we're engaging, other than to say that the Department and U.S. officials are working at high levels to have these conversations. Those conversations began over the weekend and continue today.

Q: So just to follow up, if you can't say if you talked to Turkey about these leaks, can you at least say whether or not Turkey was reached out to as a result of the strikes that happened over the weekend?

MR. MEAGHER: No, I don't have anything for you on that.

STAFF: Okay, we have time for one more. Mike from Washington Examiner?

Q: Hi. Thanks for taking my question. Does DOD expect more classified documents to appear online in the coming days and weeks or does the Pentagon believe they've stopped this? Thank you.

MR. MEAGHER: Thanks, Mike.

I'm not going to speculate on where we might go from here. What we're working on right now is to wrap our arms around and continue to review and assess the photographed documents that are out there, how this might have happened, and the scope of the issue.

So we've taken steps to take a closer look at how this information is distributed and to whom but I'm just going to leave it at that for now.

We're out of time. I want to say thank you for taking the time this morning. Obviously, you know -- and for your understanding that we're still limited in what we can say, but as I stated at the top, we want to make sure that we can get you as much of an update as we felt we could this afternoon and we'll continue to engage as time goes on.

So I appreciate your time and for calling in this afternoon and just let us know if you have any follow-ups.