A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 6, 2022

How Releasing Secret US Intel About Russia Is A Key To Digital Warfare

In a digital information environment, the point of having intelligence is no longer just to keep it secret, but to apply it in ways that cause an adversary to change their behavior. 

That is the theory governing the US's unprecedented release of secret intelligence which may not only have changed Putin's thinking, but bolstered US credibility with allies and forced the Russian military to act in ways that benefited Ukraine. JL 

Warren Strobel reports in the Wall Street Journal:

“Future conflicts are going to be shaped, instigated and deterred by releases of information beforehand.” The release of a blend of secrets gathered by U.S. spy agencies and commercially available satellite images kicked off an unprecedented effort to use U.S. intelligence to shape the battlefield of Europe’s bloodiest conflict in decades. The process is made easier by the proliferation of commercial satellite imagery, videos, flight tracking and other data on social-media websites"It’s been very effective in rallying support and keeping Putin off guard.”

As Russian troops amassed at Ukraine’s border in early December, White House officials pored over multiple versions of a highly classified map that detailed Moscow’s burgeoning military presence.

The administration provided a version of the map and accompanying text to the Washington Post, which published it online Dec. 3, just days before a tense phone call between President Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The release of the map—a blend of secrets gathered by U.S. spy agencies and commercially available satellite images—kicked off a virtually unprecedented effort by the Biden administration to use U.S. intelligence to shape the battlefield of Europe’s bloodiest conflict in decades.

The new approach to public intelligence sharing has involved declassifying a cascade of secrets normally reserved for top policy makers: updates on Russian troop movements; detailed allegations that Moscow would stage a pretext for its invasion; even, last week, reports of growing tension between Mr. Putin and his generals. White House officials call the strategy “downgrade and share”—with “downgrade” referring to lowering the classification level of U.S. documents or data.

U.S. officials say that although the tactic didn’t prevent the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they have evidence the public deployment of intelligence has been effective in other ways. It did, they say, stymie Mr. Putin’s plans to use a “false flag” operation, essentially a staged attack Moscow would blame on Ukraine, as a pretext for war, and might have delayed the invasion itself, giving Kyiv more time to prepare.

Citing those successes, some see “downgrade and share” as foreshadowing future uses of intelligence in international crises.

“I really think this is a harbinger,” said Glenn Gerstell, former general counsel at the National Security Agency. “Future conflicts are going to be shaped, instigated and deterred by releases of information beforehand.”

The plan to declassify and share intelligence dates to the fall of last year, when Mr. Biden signed off on it. His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was a prime architect and oversaw execution of the initiative, U.S. officials said, with support from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, CIA Director William Burns and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.

The initiative Mr. Biden approved in November, a senior official said, was an outgrowth of expanded U.S. intelligence-sharing with European allies. That trans-Atlantic effort was aimed at ensuring Washington and its partners had a common picture of Russia’s gathering military might around Ukraine, and at bolstering resolve to act, U.S. officials said.

In terms of convincing allies of the threat, however, the information sharing yielded mixed results. European allies, except Britain, greeted American predictions of an invasion with skepticism, U.S. officials said. The chief of Germany’s BND foreign intelligence service was caught in Kyiv when the invasion began and had to be evacuated overland.

And France, a senior European official said, thought Russia was using threats but wouldn’t invade. France’s military intelligence chief resigned last week.

The Biden administration has also had to tread a fine line between warning of Russia’s plans and being painted as too alarmist.

For example, one version of the map made public in early December had bright red arrows pointing from Russian military encampments into Ukraine, showing where troops would breach the border. Some officials looking at that depiction realized it might erroneously suggest a Russian invasion was imminent. It was decided, “No, we’re not going to use that one,” a senior U.S. official involved in the process said.

It was set aside in favor of a map that denoted the location of Russian units with circles, the official said.

The support from senior intelligence leaders for sharing so much information publicly represents a major shift, a second senior U.S. official said. The official recalled how in 2014, Washington was unable to effectively counteract Moscow’s information operations surrounding its annexation of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine. “Getting the intelligence community to declassify anything, even for public messaging, was like pulling teeth,” the official said.

While lawmakers on the House and Senate intelligence committees are regularly briefed privately on Russia intelligence, the White House hasn’t given Congress a heads-up before the public releases, according to Sen. Mark Warner, Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Mr. Warner says he is an enthusiastic supporter of the policy. “It puts some of the intel leadership outside their comfort zone, but I think it’s been very, very effective in terms of rallying support and keeping Putin off guard,” he said.

The flurry of declassification moves has been a relief for some lawmakers, who have watched as the U.S. has been stung by Moscow’s elaborate, multipronged disinformation operations, including during the 2016 presidential election. “My gosh, maybe the West is finally winning the information war,” Mr. Warner said.

That didn’t necessarily seem the case in early February, when the administration said Russia was planning to stage a fake attack on its own forces that it would blame on Ukraine, complete with a “very graphic propaganda video” depicting corpses and mourners played by actors. The allegation drew skepticism, demands for more evidence, and comparisons to the George W. Bush administration’s manipulation of intelligence to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“We had a lot of, ‘Why should we trust you after Iraq, after…’—name your perceived intelligence failure,” said the second senior U.S. official.

“The best antidote to that suspicion is that we have been proven right,” the official said.

U.S. officials declined to discuss some aspects of “downgrade and share,” including the sources of the intelligence and details of the interaction between the White House and U.S. spy agencies.

Current and former intelligence officials suggested the declassified information is drawn mostly from communication intercepts, satellite images and other technical means. Current officials declined to say whether the CIA’s human source network is involved.

“My sense is, it isn’t, otherwise they wouldn’t have done it” because of the risks to precious human spies, said Mark Lowenthal, a former CIA and State Department intelligence official.

So far as is known, no sources of U.S. intelligence have been compromised as a result of the disclosure of sanitized spy reports, said one U.S. official with access to such information.

The material prepared for release goes through standard declassification channels, a U.S. intelligence official said, rather than some special task force created to handle it. The latter might have raised concerns that the White House was manipulating or politicizing the intelligence flow.

Ms. Haines’s office has coordinated with declassification experts across U.S. intelligence agencies to make declassification decisions, said Nicole de Haay, a spokeswoman for the Director of National Intelligence. “The intelligence community surged personnel and resources to support classification reviews,” Ms. de Haay said.

When information comes in and spy agencies object to releasing it, an intramural negotiation sometimes ensues, current and former officials said. White House officials will ask intelligence agency representatives if there’s another way to present the information without jeopardizing sources and methods, the first senior official said.

“Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes the answer is no,” the official said. “You want to have a conversation about what the concern is.”

The process is made easier, the officials said, by the proliferation of commercial satellite imagery, videos, flight tracking and other data on social-media websites that has charted the Russian buildup and invasion. U.S. government releases often confirm and expand on open-source intelligence, giving it the patina of authority.

Mr. Lowenthal, who is also an intelligence historian, said that other than the Iraq example, U.S. presidents have usually released intelligence in the aftermath of an event, not before. President Ronald Reagan in 1983 sent his U.N. ambassador to the Security Council with tape of an intercepted conversation showing that Soviet pilots shot down a civilian Korean airliner without firing warning shots.

While there has been grumbling among some former CIA officers about the Biden administration approach, “I have no problem personally with them doing it,” Mr. Lowenthal said. “Otherwise, why have the intelligence?”


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