How the Biden administration is aggressively disseminating intelligence to try to deter Russia

Administration officials told CNN the disclosures were carefully coordinated between the National Security Council, the intelligence community and other national security agencies in an effort to disrupt Russian planning, blunt the effectiveness of any false flag operation and ultimately to deter military action.

“The hope is that the Russians will be surprised at Allied knowledge of these things, and have an internal reaction,” a senior Western intelligence official told CNN. “Usually what you expect to see is Russians wondering if they have a mole.”

“It’s helpful for them to doubt themselves. It’s helpful for them to wonder if they can actually execute some of these plans while keeping it secret and surprising,” the person continued. “Sometimes if you put enough doubt in the system, they can actually remove some competent people they suspect of being spies who, in fact, aren’t spies at all.”

Although the United States has declassified and released classified information in the past in service of other foreign policy goals – sometimes effectively; at times, as with the Iraq war approaching, disastrously — the sheer volume of disclosures makes Biden’s approach to the slowly unfolding crisis remarkable.

Clashes with the media

The strategy has also led to clashes with the US media over the administration’s reluctance to show proof of its claims. The revelations came largely in the form of statements from agency spokespersons, and officials provided little evidence — in fact, asking reporters to report the material without confirmation. (Other media reports on the crisis, of course, come from conventional reporting and unauthorized leaks.)

“If you doubt the credibility of the US government, the UK government or other governments and you want, you know, to find comfort in the information that the Russians publish, it’s up to you, said State Department spokesman Ned Price. said during his challenge last week. He then called the journalist in question to apologize.

Last week, spokespersons for several US agencies said the US had intelligence showing that Russia planned to release a scripted video showing staged attacks by Ukrainian forces as a pretext for military action. . In January, the United States said it had credible information that Russia had pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a separate false flag operation in eastern Ukraine. And in December, the White House released a declassified document indicating that Russia was planning an offensive in early 2022 involving up to 175,000 troops. Officials have also been remarkably detailed in public about the number of Russian troops they see amassed on the border – intelligence that has been backed up by commercial satellite imagery released by private companies.

“We are not instrumentalizing the press. What we are doing is conducting a strategic communications campaign,” the Western intelligence official said. “Keep in mind that there are many potential audiences for these disclosures, whether they’re made from the podium or whether they’re made as part of a briefing or other formats. I would say the The State Department was probably also trying to tell the American people, “That’s the nature of this crisis. That’s what we see.”

The tactic has well-publicized precedents from the Cold War. In 1962, the administration of President John F. Kennedy released photographs of Soviet ballistic missiles positioned in Cuba amid the escalating crisis there, in part to convince a skeptical press corps in the United States and UK.

In 2022, the objective is more operational: it is a question of depriving Russia of the same element of surprise which it benefited from in 2014, when it annexed Crimea. Many of the same U.S. officials in government were now at the forefront of decision-making in 2014 and are “absolutely” responding to the lessons learned from that experience, Western diplomats told CNN.

Biden on the situation in Ukraine:

In 2014, Western officials were caught off guard by Russia’s denials that it was sending unmarked troops to the peninsula ahead of the actual assault, according to a Western diplomat. Officials told reporters in the background that they were skeptical of “little green men” on the ground, but did not say publicly to counter Russia’s denials.

The United States has long struggled to respond to Russia’s use of so-called “grey area” warfare tactics – things like disinformation and false flag operations – that the US military is historically unconfigured to lead or counter. Intelligence officials have been debating for decades how and when to quickly release intelligence to disrupt these kinds of asymmetric tactics. Those talks have only intensified as Putin’s Russia has capitalized on the digital age to wage sophisticated information warfare, according to current and former officials.

But the Biden administration’s strategy of repeated disclosures offers one of the first enduring examples of a relatively new and untested doctrine.

“The new doctrine is the ability to use intelligence as an information operations weapon,” said former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who noted that the Obama administration made similar disclosures after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

Case by case

The releases also drew attention because much of the information could not have been gleaned from satellite images alone – which are often duplicated on public channels – instead signaling clear US access to military channels and Russian intelligence.

Satellite images offer relatively limited information, current and former intelligence officials note. It is impossible to glean Putin’s intent from mere tank formations, which can be used as decoys. US officials are aware that Russian military doctrine explicitly encompasses deception – a concept known in Russian as “maskirovka” or “masking”.

But intelligence releases about suspected false flag operations are also the riskiest for the United States, according to former officials.

“Obviously the downsides of doing things like this are, ‘Is the source that we pulled this from going to dry up on us?’ “It’s always the risk gain assessment that you have to do.”

Another source close to the intelligence admitted that he was “personally a little surprised at everything that has come to light publicly, although I can appreciate the balance between exposing Russian schemes and burning sensitive sources and methods”.

Current US officials say the decision to downgrade information went through normal processes, led by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and that no disclosures were made that could expose the means by which the US collected the information. in the first place.

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“The intelligence community used its standard declassification procedures, which are in place to protect sources and methods,” a US intelligence official said.

Meanwhile, an extraordinary amount of the Russian buildup has unfolded in public, allowing the administration to publicly discuss the kind of hard intelligence about troop numbers and force positioning that in past clashes would have been classified. As commercial satellites have proliferated and advanced in recent years, high-resolution photos of Russian troop and tank formations that would once have been the preserve of government satellites are now being made public by private companies like Maxar.

The strategy is also part of a broader effort by the Biden administration to share intelligence to keep partners and allies on the same page about the nature of the threat.

“I’ve never seen it work like this. It’s a whole-of-government approach. American officials are thinking about who should we bring into the conversation very proactively,” said a State Department official familiar with the process. “And a lot of these conversations about intelligence sharing are happening because some countries just don’t believe what we’re saying is true.”

Publicly, Russia responded by flatly denying the US reports, calling them propaganda and hysteria.

“So far, all these statements are unfounded and have not been confirmed by anything,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said after a recent revelation.

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Journalists, often explicitly remembering credulous reporting on Bush administration intelligence claims in the run-up to the Iraq war, pressed officials to provide evidence to support the statements. In 2003, much of the intelligence deliberately leaked to journalists and the world community, alleging evidence that Saddam Hussein was re-creating a nuclear weapons program, turned out to be gravely flawed – thanks in part to the United States’ reliance on a single and unreliable source.

A spokesperson for the National Security Council said Tuesday that the administration cannot release any of the underlying information “without compromising intelligence sources and methods,” adding that “it is useful for the public to report these operations and to dissuade Russia from pursuing them”.

Still, Biden’s revelations have largely earned positive reviews as a judicious and effective use of intelligence, according to US government sources familiar with the underlying information.

“I think it’s a good thing to do, because by mitigating the Russians, especially if you can do it preemptively, you can prevent that from happening – and it would seem, at least so far, that be it,” Clapper said.

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