Biden’s experiment in intelligence transparency bears repeating

A stream of disclosures of the most sensitive intelligence imaginable by the Biden administration in the runup to the Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a huge step forward for government transparency.

It dramatically undercuts the intelligence community’s single-minded devotion to secrecy in the name of protecting “sources and methods” that might be lost if targets learn they are being successfully surveilled.

Going forward, it shifts the equilibrium toward greater disclosure.

The intelligence findings the administration declassified and shared over the last three months about Vladimir Putin’s preparations to invade Ukraine, “could only have been obtained by penetrating, at least to some degree, Russia’s military and intelligence systems,” as David Sanger wrote in the New York Times.

“It wasn’t like a single briefing that was laboriously devised for public presentation,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ government secrecy project. “It was a series of rapid disclosures that could only have been based on highly sensitive collection.”

As Aftergood explained, “It’s the most sensitive stuff because it basically tells your target that this channel is compromised. In the past it would have been obscured or delayed if it were disclosed at all.”

But Biden approved the dissemination because he considered the stakes too high to do otherwise.

As the Washington Post reported, “officials released the information not so much to deter Putin from invading,” which they considered pretty hopeless. “Rather, they were attempting to shape the public debate and disclose enough information about Putin’s plans so that he could not operate with impunity or attempt to blame Ukraine for a war that he started.”

Among the disclosures, as the Post recounted: “They used satellite imagery to reveal his massing of troops along the Ukraine border; released details of a scheme to install a puppet regime in Kyiv; and reported that Russia was planning an elaborate false-flag attack — staging a video that would accuse Ukrainian forces of attacking Russian territory or Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, complete with corpses to stand in for victims and a cast of actors posing as mourners.”

Journalists greeted some of the intelligence findings with justifiable skepticism, given the lack of hard evidence and repeated U.S. intelligence failures in the past. So did domestic political opponents and some allied nations.

But the intelligence indicating that Putin would attack sometime in late February certainly proved accurate, as did many of the details.

Disclosures of contentious intelligence represent a bit of a puzzle for reporters. One the one hand, they should continue to be skeptical of intelligence that isn’t supported with hard evidence. On the other, they should push for greater transparency.

At a White House press briefing on Feb. 11, national security adviser Jake Sullivan suggested two things reporters could keep in mind when assessing credibility: motive, and open-source intelligence.

“In the situation in Iraq, intelligence was used and deployed from this very podium to start a war.  We are trying to stop a war, to prevent a war, to avert a war.  And all we can do is come here before you in good faith and share everything that we know to the best of our ability,” he said.

And, he noted, “there’s another big difference between what happened in 2003 and what’s happening in 2022, and that is — in that case, it was information about intentions, about a hidden thing, stuff that couldn’t be seen.  Today, we are talking about more than 100,000 Russian troops amassed along the Ukrainian border, with every capacity out there in the open for people to see.  It’s all over social media.  It’s all over your news sites.”

A New Precedent—or Not?

“It was the start of a new phase where we were talking about what we were seeing. This is a very different way to do diplomacy,” a senior administration official told the Post.

But will that phase continue, now that diplomacy is kind of moot?

Aftergood certainly hopes it will. “It’s something we haven’t seen before and it means we could hope for more of it in the future,” he said. “Culturally, it represents a shift for the intelligence community.”

But, he noted, this was a special case. “This whole phenomenon is best understood as a tactical maneuver.” The hope was that the public airing of intelligence “would befuddle or bewilder the Russians and complicate their plan, that it would reassure and strengthen allies.”

Aftergood said that as a result, it doesn’t necessarily represent “a broad commitment to intelligence transparency.”

It’s all going to depend on “who’s calling the shots,” he said. It’s “imaginable that there would be a lot more disclosure,” he said. “Or one could imagine a sharp reversal from what we’ve just seen.”

Pushing for More

If you missed it, I highly recommend the Feb. 24 New York Times article by Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger (this link gets you past the firewall.)  They wrote that some disclosures may actually continue:

The intelligence disclosures may not be over now that the invasion has begun. The Biden administration has made clear it does not want to take on the job of publicly calling out Russian troop movements. But it may continue its information releases, as officials mull various options to hold Russia accountable for its actions in Ukraine, according to people familiar with the discussion.

Those ongoing efforts could involve countering Russian propaganda that frames Moscow as the guardians and liberators of the Ukrainian people, not an occupying force. It could also involve work to expose potential war crimes and try to give the lie to Russian claims that their war aims are limited.

I’m thinking: Of course they should do that. Aren’t you?

And why not make Russian troop movements public? It’s been very hard for journalists to capture the big picture, why not help them keep the public accurately informed?

I certainly don’t see why intelligence sources couldn’t be regularly guiding reporters and the public to open-source information they’ve judged to be reliable.

And now that officials have confirmed that even Putin and his top henchmen can be effectively surveilled, isn’t it time for them to tell ordinary people what sort of intelligence gathering methods they’re subject to?

Nearly nine years after Edward Snowden disclosed mass surveillance by the NSA magnitudes greater than almost anyone had suspected, we still don’t know the extent to which NSA spies on U.S. communications, despite legal protections, nor whether it applies any restraint at all to spying on communications around the world. How many emails, texts, and call transcripts does the NSA capture and store and search?

Intelligence is gathered to serve the national interest, not to be hoarded in secrecy. Biden’s decision to let the public in on those secrets turned out to be the right one. It often is.


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