Secret Government Documents That Were Leaked

Governments and public officials always have their secrets, whether they meet the formal, modern definition of classified information or not. Whatever the reasons for keeping such secrets, any puncturing of the wall of silence around them is unlikely to be welcomed, and concern over the breach can be as intense, if not more so, than concern over the content of the leak. The 2023 leak of U.S. security documents on social media inspired fears at home of how such sensitive material ended up in the hands of a young, low-ranking airman, and anger abroad at what the leaks revealed about American spying on allied powers (per NPR). Investigations and prosecutions of leakers have ended in prison sentences.

At times, however, leaked secret documents have been seen in a more heroic light. An entire generation came of age with the most prominent example of such a leak revealing hidden truths about the Vietnam War and hastening its end. Much depends on the nature of the information revealed, the political climate of the day, and the motives of those behind the leaks, which have varied wildly throughout history. Here are some of the most notable secret government documents that were leaked.

The Hutchinson Letters

Besides being counted among the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin is also remembered as the father of the U.S. postal service. He was considered an able candidate when the Continental Congress established the position of postmaster general, having served the same role for all 13 colonies prior to the revolution's beginning. But Franklin's handling of private correspondence led to his rather ignominious resignation as the colonial postmaster.

In December 1772 (per the Smithsonian), letters from the governor and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts to the British government — advocating for harsher measures to keep the increasingly agitated colonies in line — fell into Franklin's hands while in England.  While not yet a full-throated supporter of independence from Britain, Franklin did find the recommendations of Governor Thomas Hutchinson alarming enough to pass the letters on to friends active in colonial politics. He did so on the understanding that they would remain private, a stipulation Samuel Adams promptly ignored. The leaked letters, wherein Hutchinson called for more troops and fewer rights, sparked outrage in Massachusetts and a furious investigation in England.

Disputes over the leaker's identity culminated in a clumsy duel in 1773. At that point, Franklin admitted to giving the letters to his friends back home, but argued that such deliberations about the fate of the colonies should have been in the public record. He was fired by the privy council and returned to America with a newfound zeal for independence. Whoever passed Hutchinson's letters onto Franklin remains unknown.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

Government secrets have been leaked from all levels of state, from field agents to senior cabinet officials. In at least one instance of American history, a plausible suspect for a leak was a future president. In 1848 (per the National Constitution Center), the United States and Mexico were negotiating the end of the Mexican-American War. But before the agreement, known as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, could be ratified by the Senate, New York Herald reporter John Nugent published details of its confidential terms, including U.S. territorial gains (via the National Archives). These greatly expanded American control over southwest North America, including territory that now includes California, Utah, New Mexico, and Nevada.

Nugent, who also reported on leaks by the Senate to the press, was brought in on charges of contempt of the Senate, which demanded to know the source of the draft treaty. He refused to betray his source, saying only that he didn't get the draft from anyone connected to the Senate itself. While Nugent remained in custody, the Herald began naming their senatorial sources for other stories. Appeals by Nugent to the D.C. circuit court failed, but he was able to keep writing while held by the Senate, and was later released on account of his health.

While unconfirmed, Nugent's suspected source was James Buchanan, then secretary of state. Nugent was known to have supported Buchanan over President James K Polk — and when Buchanan became president, he gave Nugent a plum diplomatic post.

The Pentagon Papers

It was formally called the Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, but it became infamously known as the Pentagon Papers. This was a classified study commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967, to assess the history of the United States' activities in Vietnam over the previous two decades. The report was ordered against a backdrop of growing antagonism by the American public to the Vietnam War, and among those so disenchanted was one of the workers responsible for preparing the study.

Daniel Ellsberg was an enthusiastic supporter of American involvement in the Vietnam conflict in the 1950s, but he had completely reversed himself by the time the report was completed. The full report, available through the National Archives, detailed how successive presidential administrations intensified American political and military presence in the region, often without revealing the full extent of activities to the public. It also found that bombing campaigns against North Vietnam were done even after it was determined that the raids wouldn't affect support for the Viet Cong.

Ellsberg leaked portions of the report to a New York Times reporter, and the Times was joined by The Washington Post and the Boston Globe in revealing the leaks' contents to a shocked international audience. The Department of Justice sought to suppress the leaks, citing national security, but in a landmark decision by the Supreme Court, the papers' publishing was deemed protected by the first amendment.

The Downing Street Memos

Notable episodes in the history of British intelligence rarely resemble their famous literary and cinematic spies. The Downing Street memo, leaked to the press in 2005, was just that: a memorandum summarizing a briefing. But that briefing was by the head of British intelligence, Richard Dearlove, to Prime Minister Tony Blair in early 2002, and the subject was the George W. Bush administration's efforts to mount a military assault on Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime.

The briefing was given after Dearlove had consulted with his counterpart at the CIA. According to the memo itself (via The National Security Archive), British intelligence had determined that Bush was dedicated to breaking Hussein's hold on power, and his administration was prepared to manipulate evidence to support that goal. It was also observed that the administration had scarcely considered what Iraq would look like after any military action. The briefing outlined various attack scenarios and discussed possible divergence with American policy, but it noted that the Bush administration saw a war as inevitable.

The memo was leaked to reporter Michael Smith, and it inspired fierce criticism of Bush and Blair on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, it became a campaign issue, as the Conservative party claimed it showed Blair's subservient relationship to the Bush administration. While Blair came out of the election with his hold on office unbroken, the Labour Party's majority was greatly reduced, and the conduct of the Iraq War was largely held to blame.

The Iraq War logs

Even before the Iraq War began in 2003, critics of the intervention had doubts about the information given to the public about conditions in Iraq. The Downing Street memo, leaked in 2005, demonstrated to some of these critics how intelligence was manipulated in the lead-up to the war, and revelations of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison site the year before revealed a hidden, ugly dimension to coalition tactics. But the 2010 reporting on the so-called Iraq War logs demonstrated the extent to which human rights abuses and unreliable government claims ran.

Leaked by junior intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to Wikileaks, which in turn distributed the logs among various mainstream media outlets, the Iraq War logs were a collection of almost 400,000 reports by the U.S. military spanning several years. They showed a systematic abuse of prisoners by Iraqi officials that was known but unchallenged by American authorities. The reports also showed that, contrary to U.S. and U.K. claims, thousands of civilian casualties were recorded and that coalition forces had sometimes met offers of surrender with lethal force (per The Guardian).

The U.S., U.K., and Iraqi governments all attacked the reporting on the leaks as a security risk, while Wikileaks founder Julian Assange defended his site's actions as enlightening the public to the truth. Manning, who says she leaked the information because she felt the military was misleading the country, was sentenced to 35 years in prison,which was commuted early in 2017.

The Palestine Papers

In January 2011, Al Jazeera announced that it was in possession of around 1,700 classified documents of various natures, produced between 1999 and 2000, that related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (per Al Jazeera). The cache was shared with The Guardian, and the two outlets dubbed them the Palestine Papers, with the majority of documents coming from the Palestinian negotiation support unit (NSU) and various security units. It was described as the largest intelligence leak since the conflict between Israel and Palestine began.

The documents showed the great lengths Palestinian leaders were prepared to go to reach a compromise with Israel, after the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000. Concessions offered over the years included acknowledging Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and proposals for dividing control of holy sites. However, Al Jazeera, in its inaugural report, claimed that these concessions, offered by the Palestinian Authority, were not matched by any gesture from Israel; The Guardian characterized both sides as making substantive offers, but that the sticking point in talks was Israel's continued settlement of the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority was quick to challenge Al Jazeera's motives in publishing the leaked documents. There was longstanding antagonism between the network and the Palestinian Authority, the latter of which had seen its reputation among Palestinians fall over the years. It was insinuated that Al Jazeera sought to further weaken the Palestinian Authority and support their chief rivals, Hamas, while the network characterized its reporting as being in the spirit of encouraging public debate.

Edward Snowden's NSA leaks

Intelligence and security are tightly bound in government, and in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the U.S. government felt compelled to address apparent gaps in its intelligence surveillance policies. A broad interpretation of powers granted by the Patriot Act was used to justify the NSA infiltrating major internet servers to collect information on the online activities of ordinary U.S. citizens. Surveillance was also done on the activities of the leaders of allied powers, including Germany and Brazil.

This level of intrusion into the lives of Americans and their allies came to light in 2013, when The Guardian and The Washington Post began sharing reports carved out of thousands of leaked documents from the NSA. Per The Guardian, these not only unmasked the extent of the NSA's spying, but also revealed details of the intelligence apparatus, such as the existence of the intelligence program Prism — created to harvest data from companies like Google and Apple. The Obama administration defended the NSA's activities as vital to preventing terrorist attacks, but the reporting generated fresh concerns over privacy among the American public, a majority of whom valued civil liberties over such extensive security measures.

The leaker of the NSA documents was a contractor in their employ, Edward Snowden. Shortly after revealing himself, Snowden fled to Moscow to evade a potential 30-year prison term. His revelations generated some reforms to surveillance, but critics still argue they don't go far enough.

Reality Winner leaked to The Intercept

Possible interference by Russia was an ongoing concern after the 2016 presidential election, but the Russian authorities denied any such activity. Per The Intercept, a January 2017 report by the outgoing Obama administration that was later made public concluded that Russia had indeed run a propaganda campaign, but it drew no conclusions on the degree of any effect, and it suggested that Russia had not made a significant breach in the American voting or vote-tallying systems.

Several months later, however, The Intercept received a classified NSA report that suggested a more sinister picture: Russian hacking efforts that tapped into at least one voting software firm, and efforts to control the computers of over 100 election officials. The report was an analysis of intelligence information, not the intelligence itself, but the reported attempts at seizing control of government computers — called spear-phishing — represented a major potential security risk.

The analysis was leaked by Reality Winner, an NSA contractor and former member of the U.S. Air Force. She was prosecuted under the Espionage Act and later reached a plea deal that saw her sent to prison for five years beginning in 2018, the longest such sentence for a media source in American history. The Intercept defended its source, reporting that the leak posed no security risk because Russia already knew their operations had been uncovered. Winner was later released in 2021 for good behavior.

The Dobbs decision

Not all government secrets leaked to the press concern intelligence or national security. Among the more explosive leaks in modern U.S. history concerned a draft decision by the Supreme Court in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. Typically, one justice from the majority of a preliminary vote on a Supreme Court case is assigned to write a draft opinion, which can be amended and sometimes overruled as the justices further deliberate. With the initial vote on Dobbs in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade and ending federal protection of abortion rights, the draft opinion was assigned to Justice Samuel Alito.

Alito wrote a scathing draft, which was leaked to the press a few months before the final decision. According to Politico, which broke the story, the justice loaded his opinion with harsh and sometimes contemptuous judgments of Roe v. Wade and how it was decided. Criticisms of Roe by liberal judges were cited, and the language of Alito's fellow conservatives was echoed throughout. Alito insinuated that some proponents of abortion rights were motivated by eugenics, and he regularly referred to doctors who provide the service as "abortionists."

No other draft decision of the Supreme Court has been leaked in its modern history. The final decision varied only somewhat, and it inspired a furious backlash. Chief Justice John Roberts immediately ordered an investigation into the breach, but as of the release of the report in January 2023, no one has been identified as the leaker.

2023 Pentagon leaks on social media

In March 2023, classified documents concerning U.S. security began appearing on a gaming group set up on the social media platform Discord. From there, they spread to other online platforms, including Twitter and 4chan. The documents were primarily concerned with American and NATO powers' steps to aid Ukraine in its war with Russia, including troop numbers and training schedules. But they also contained information on American security interests in regards to China and the Middle East. Over 100 documents were in the leak, and it took the U.S. government weeks to realize they were circulating publicly. According to The New York Times, which broke the story, fear of leaks had made Ukrainian officials so hesitant about sharing information with U.S. forces that its plans were more opaque than Russia's.

The leaked documents represented the first time during the Russo-Ukrainian War that an intelligence breakthrough in Russia's favor was made public. As they circulated, they could fall into the hands of Russia-friendly online actors, with U.S. security analysts warning that they could then be manipulated to sow disinformation. The fact that the leak went unnoticed for so long prompted the House intelligence committee to begin an investigation. A separate investigation by the FBI brought Jack Teixeira into custody for the leak: Teixeira, a 21-year-old airman, was the leader of a small Discord server that blended gaming with politics,and initial reporting indicated he faced prosecution under the Espionage Act.