Spy world wary as Biden team keeps leaking Russia intel

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The Biden administration has gone to unusual lengths to publicly share intelligence about Russia’s threat to Ukraine, using targeted media leaks and other methods to warn the world of everything from the specifics of Moscow’s troop build-up to an alleged Kremlin plot to fake an attack that justifies an invasion.

The strategy has its fans, but some national security veterans wonder if the administration is taking it too far.

U.S. officials say the disclosures are carefully vetted and represent only a small amount of the information America and its allies have gathered as Russian leader Vladimir Putin amasses troops along Ukraine’s border. The goals, they say, include preemptively exposing — and thus derailing — Russian lies that could lead to a war while also putting America and its European allies on the same page.

“We believe … that the best antidote to disinformation is information,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday during an appearance before reporters. It’s an approach that could prove a blueprint going forward as countries increasingly rely on manipulating the information space to further their geopolitical aims.

Among supporters of the effort is Michael Hayden, a former director of both the CIA and the National Security Agency, who said being more public-leaning on intelligence is something he’s advocated for years given the changing threat landscape. “It’s very different now — the Information Age is very important,” Hayden said.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said approvingly that “leaning in” on intelligence disclosures has given the Russians “fair warning.” “I think that’s, again, put the Russians back a little bit,” he said.

But there have been so many revelations that some national security hands wish administration officials would just shut up. And many, even those who support the disclosures, wonder if President Joe Biden and his aides are being overly alarmist due to past strategic and intelligence failures in places like Ukraine and, more recently, Afghanistan.

“I am concerned about the long-term credibility of our intelligence with all of these select declassifications,” a former CIA officer with expertise on Russia told POLITICO. “If it turns out to be wrong, or partially wrong, it undermines how much our partners trust the info we give them, or, frankly, how much the public trusts it.”

Such views may be in the minority, for now, but across Washington quiet conversations are getting louder about the administration’s unusual openness about intelligence in the face-off with Moscow.

“Traditional warfare has always been about grinding down your adversaries’ will,” said Gavin Wilde, a former U.S. intelligence official with expertise on Russia and information warfare. “We used to be entirely reliant on hard power to do that, and now it’s a whole lot easier to do with the information tools available to us.”

‘A common baseline’

The Biden administration has used an array of tactics to publicly share information and analyses about Russia’s military build-up and intentions.

They include authorized leaks to select news organizations as well as public statements. The administration also consults outside analysts and lawmakers, some of whom then talk about the material with reporters. (Of course, some of the articles published aren’t based on authorized leaks but instead are the work of well-sourced journalists.)

The reports, which have appeared since last fall, have covered everything from U.S. suspicions that Russia could deploy as many as 175,000 troops for a Ukraine invasion to allegations that the Kremlin planned to create a propaganda video about a fake attack by Ukraine that could offer Moscow a pretext for war.

Russia denies it has plans to invade Ukraine. Putin, however, insists that the United States and its European allies must address concerns he has about the expansion of the NATO military alliance, which he views as a threat to his country.
On numerous occasions, Biden administration officials have said a Russian invasion of Ukraine could occur at any moment, citing details about Moscow’s troop deployments in places including the Kremlin-allied country of Belarus.

A former National Security Council official who dealt with Russia argued that the more intelligence the administration releases, the more likely that the Kremlin’s operatives can trace the sources and methods used to obtain it, endangering American assets, including human ones.

“How many freaking times do they need to warn that anything may be imminent?” the former official asked. “Next time we won’t know what the plans are because the Russians won’t use those channels they know we collect on.”

The former official said unveiling Russia’s gray zone tactics makes sense now and then, but “it’s the volume of specific stuff that creates a problem, not any one piece of information per se.”

A senior Biden administration official and a senior U.S. intelligence official, however, said the risks are carefully weighed very step of the way.

“The cost-benefit analysis has so far weighed in favor of sharing as much as feasible given what’s at stake,” the senior intelligence official said. “Also, given European skepticism [about Russia’s motives] in some quarters, there’s a sense that we need to do everything we can to establish a common baseline understanding of the threat.”

While there are lingering questions about some European governments’ willingness to crack down hard on Russia using economic sanctions and military aid to Ukraine, the senior administration official stressed that the intelligence-sharing between America and its European allies has been robust amid the crisis. Last month, the British government made public its suspicions that Moscow was considering installing a puppet regime in Kyiv as part of an effort to control the country.

There’s been no official pushback from U.S. intelligence agencies about how or when the information they’ve gleaned and analyzed is made public, the senior administration official added, implying that a good deal of intelligence remains private. “What we have made public is a small amount of declassified intel that’s been very carefully reviewed for any potential compromise to sources and methods,” the official said.

The release of intelligence about a foe has precedent. Most famously, the George W. Bush administration selectively leaked allegations about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify its 2003 invasion of that country. The claims turned out to be false, but were a precursor to war.

Amid the Ukraine crisis, the sheer amount of information the Biden team is releasing, as well as how frequently and quickly it is doing so, is unusual.

“It’s almost real time,” said Calder Walton, an intelligence historian at Harvard. “It’s the world that we’re in now.”

Walton added, however, that such an approach is “high-risk,” especially if the information is later proven wrong. Iraq is an obvious example, but there are other cases that have eroded U.S. credibility.

In 1983, the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Air Lines civilian passenger plane carrying 269 people. The U.S. almost immediately asserted it was a deliberate act and that the Soviets had to know the nature of the target. President Ronald Reagan called it “barbaric” and a “terrorist act,” and Secretary of State George Shultz held a press conference detailing what American intelligence had picked up about Soviet communications on the incident.

But the United States later had to backtrack as more evidence suggested the Soviets had not known the aircraft was carrying civilians and shot it down thinking it was a U.S. spy plane. “The result was that the Reagan administration undermined its criticism of the Soviet government by overstating its case,” Walton said.

The shadow of Afghanistan

The administration’s decision to go public with its findings likely is rooted in part in lessons U.S. officials have learned from dealing with Russia’s interference in American elections. One of those lessons was that it’s important to alert the U.S. public about Russian disinformation tactics sooner rather than later, so-called pre-bunking.

Many people in the Biden administration — including the president — also were in government the last time Russia invaded Ukraine, in 2014. That invasion involved more surreptitious methods than what Moscow is using now, and in many ways it startled the world. For instance, Putin deployed Russian forces with no insignia on their uniforms to take over the Crimean peninsula. The troops came to be called “little green men.”

Other recent U.S. fumbles may also be influencing the Biden administration’s intense diplomatic as well as intelligence strategies on Russia and Ukraine.

Most recently, the administration has faced opprobrium for its handling of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, including intelligence assessments that failed to foresee how quickly Kabul would fall to the Taliban. Critics of the administration’s Afghan policy said its rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops as well as contractors doomed the Afghan army and the country by pulling out critical support functions.

This time, with Ukraine, “they know that they have to be seen to be a dependable ally,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official said of the Biden team.

U.S. officials downplay if not outright dismiss the Afghanistan factor. Still, it troubles those wary of the possibility of escalating conflict with Russia. Despite Biden’s promises that U.S. troops will not fight in Ukraine if Russia invades, some fear mission creep is inevitable. They question if the intelligence community’s off-the-mark assessments of what would happen in Afghanistan is leading the spy agencies to overcorrect with unduly pessimistic assessments about Ukraine.

“I also wonder if the Afghanistan withdrawal experience might have made the administration more sensitive to criticism from hawks and thus more susceptible to bad hawkish advice,” a senior Democratic congressional aide said.

Despite Russia’s aggressive deployment of some 100,000 troops along the border with Ukraine, it’s entirely possible that the crisis freezes for weeks, if not months, and that eventually Putin pulls all his forces back.

If the public warnings sounded by the Biden administration don’t turn into real moves by Russia, could that hurt the U.S. intelligence community’s credibility?

“I can see that if it becomes a repeated pattern that doesn’t bear out, but it seems to me they had high confidence in [the intelligence] reporting this time,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council. “Given the stakes involved those costs seem manageable.”

Besides, as Kendall-Taylor put it, if the intelligence suggesting that Putin will invade turns out to be wrong, “we should all be happy about that.”

Alexander Ward contributed to this report.

Source: Politico