The fog over the endgame in Russia, Ukraine, and Europe won’t lift any time soon. The US intelligence has shifted from declaring an immediate invasion to reporting a potential summit with the United States, Russia, and several European powers. But the one thing that’s radically different from this conflict than any other is the decision of the Biden administration to leak US intelligence in real-time.
The shift to leaking copious amounts of intelligence is stark. Politico reported that the White House “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 tactic has the explicit goal of manipulating public opinion and driving the narrative, no matter what. Politico’s report summed it up as countries creating a blueprint that sought to “manipulate the information space to further their geopolitical aims.” CIA officer Douglas London remarked, “The current quantity, frequency, and depth of classified raw intelligence being revealed is unprecedented.”
Leaks of every kind of US intelligence have made it into the hands of newspapers and journalists friendly to the White House. Anything that drives the narrative that the White House needs to push gets published instantly. Biden’s live, real-time declassification of intelligence at the scope we’re witnessing is unlike any previous conflict.
Quoting multiple intelligence officials, the New Yorker called it a revolution. “Among national-security professionals, one reaction has been celebration: finally, after several years of being outflanked by Russian misinformation, the United States was fighting an information war of its own.”
The Information Age has given birth to the Information War.
On one level, this development is predictable. Every advancement in technology has its pros and cons. Eventually, it will get roped into offensive and defensive in a country’s military. The invention of computers and the internet beget cyberwarfare that governments use from everything to attacking another country to pervasive forms of espionage.
A country trying to control the narrative of what is occurring in a given crisis isn’t new either. The mass media age created a new for governments to try and control the messaging both internally and externally. That’s why China has such pervasive censorship.
But the difference between all of that and the Biden administration’s model for information is the real-time declassification and publication of US military intelligence everywhere. It is one thing to believe the United States needs to fight and win an information war against geopolitical foes; it’s quite another to reveal US intelligence to fight that war.
The first problem is that of trust. One CIA analyst put it like this, “I am concerned about the long-term credibility of our intelligence with all of these select declassifications … 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.”
In the past, we’ve seen catastrophic failures of US intelligence in catching things like the 9/11 attacks or the ineptitude over WMDs in Iraq. More recently, the Biden administration’s failures regarding the debacle in Afghanistan were apparent for all to see. The White House had flawed evaluations and combined that with even worse decision-making.
If Joe Biden is wrong in his analysis and the intelligence is off like Afghanistan, trust in those proclamations from US spies will collapse from the American public to our allies. That kind of trust takes years, if not decades, to rebuild. It’s not something a change of leadership fixes.
More concerning, however, is how the Biden administration’s speed in declassifying US intelligence could reveal our sources. It’s one thing to display satellite photos; it’s quite another to reveal the orders handed out by Vladimir Putin.
The White House will claim that they’re being careful in these reveals. But suppose the Russians use the quick turnaround to test out sending out false information. In that case, they’d get an effortless way to determine where the leaks are in their government. The information age does not free governments from using physical assets.
An example of that is from 2010 to 2012 when China purged US intelligence assets across the spectrum. “The Chinese killed at least a dozen people providing information to the CIA from 2010 through 2012, dismantling a network that was years in the making.”
The Ukraine crisis has suddenly given the Russians an easy way to test and find leaks in their government. Whether they’re testing that theory out or not is impossible to determine right now, in the actual fog of a crisis. Putin is hiding his intentions and moves, and the United States is very open with what we know.
We will get the answers to all these questions soon enough. The United States has to assume the Biden administration is getting everything right until then. That’s not the most comfortable place to be since we’re barely half a year removed from the intelligence failures of Afghanistan.
With the specter of war as a distinct possibility, we’re in an uncertain position with an untried blueprint for navigating a geopolitical conflict. That’d be bad enough without the ever-present fog of war with Russian misinformation.