Intelligence agencies are secretive organisations that generate secret products. Their reports come adorned with reminders to maintain discretion: “Top Secret” this, “Sensitive Compartmented Information” that. Those following former US president Donald Trump’s curious filing practices in Mar-a-Lago will appreciate the significance governments attach to protecting their classified materials and the damage revelations can do.
Yet, over the past eight months, the US, British and Ukrainian governments and Nato partners have been regularly briefing global audiences on their intelligence concerning Russia and its war against Ukraine.
Our study, in the journal Survival, examines this seemingly paradoxical behaviour, asking questions about how and why governments communicate intelligence – and with what risks.
I’ll show you mine
Before and during the war in Ukraine, intelligence disclosures have been intended to bolster Ukrainian and European resilience against Russia’s invasion, to undermine Russia’s attempts to justify their actions and expose their wartime atrocities and failings. These disclosures have also sought to justify Nato and EU member economic sanctions and security assistance to Ukraine and to enhance cohesion with more reluctant allies to isolate Russia diplomatically and economically.
The methods of and motives for these disclosures are not unprecedented. In the past, states have communicated intelligence for the same underlying reasons: to justify actions or policies and to persuade partners or adversaries to their cause and build their resilience. It’s also used for incriminating adversaries.
Yet the scale, frequency and initially preemptive nature of intelligence disclosures concerning Russia and Ukraine are new. Given the acute pressure Ukraine is under, Kyiv is disclosing especially granular intelligence on alleged Russian operations to kill Ukrainian prisoners of war and Russian security service war planning.
In a more sanitised manner, UK Defence Intelligence continues its daily “intelligence briefings” on social media about Russian military progress and internal tensions. The US is using satellite imagery to expose Russian efforts to source Iranian drones and disclosing assessments to spotlight global Russian influence operations.
As Anna Horrigan, the US National Security Agency’s senior executive, explains: “We can’t just watch our adversaries, we have to do something about it, whether sharing timely information, or taking action against that actor.”
With both former intelligence officers and those responsible for these influence campaigns championing their benefits, the war in Ukraine has probably set a precedent for – and an expectation of – this more open approach to communicating secrets, at least for its main proponents the US, UK and Ukraine.
Rewards and risks
Recent public reflections about using intelligence this way by leading British stakeholders, such as the chief of Defence Intelligence, General Sir Jim Hockenhull, and GCHQ director, Jeremy Fleming, have not, however, addressed the associated risks.
The dissemination of intelligence is generally limited because access to secrets is vulnerable: hard to gain and easy to lose. Once a target suspects what a state knows, and how, it might adapt to secure information and deny future access. In this case, Russia can take steps to guard against further leakage, for example, by improving communication security – or it could manipulate the sources of leaks, using them as channels of deception.
Ukraine’s willingness to publicly disclose intercepted communications of senior Russian policymakers and intelligence officers for short-term exposure gains, for instance, may carry long-term access costs. As CIA director William Burns has publicly acknowledged, considering when and how to play one’s hand – in what level of detail and through what channels – will be important in future calculations.
Besides these operational concerns, future planning must consider a further strategic risk: the escalation costs of potentially hamstringing one’s own or adversaries’ decision-making. An international environment in which states can signal intent, pursue core interests and even wage shadow wars can, under certain circumstances, reduce decision-makers’ exposure to elite political pressures and domestic public approval ratings, permitting greater flexibility.
Removing this ambiguous “grey zone” to expose adversaries’ covert activities, while attractive, risks entrenching or exacerbating positions rather than encouraging moderation, deterrence, or de-escalation. The administration of former US president Harry Truman understood this point clearly, when it chose not to publicly expose the Kremlin’s covert deployment of Soviet pilots during the Korean War.
Similarly, Singapore’s government is avoiding naming and shaming China’s covert influence operations within its politics and society. To act differently risks potentially worse outcomes: escalation or direct nuclear confrontation or economic punishment.
Finally, long-term considerations of disclosing for influence must consider the audience costs of losing trust through politicised intelligence. Using intelligence to forewarn of an enemy’s planned action runs the self-negating risk of successfully deterring the very act that is predicted. Also, publicly deployed intelligence often lacks the nuance of internal and classified assessments. It is consumed by a public generally unfamiliar with the limits of intelligence and contextual considerations.
In both cases, when disclosed assessments on complex phenomena are perceived as partially or wholly “wrong”, the credibility of the responsible agencies and policymakers can be tarnished. Intelligence can appear not only incompetent, but even craven or corrupt. The legacy of the “dodgy dossier” on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) continues to cast a long shadow in the UK in this way.
As the 2004 UK Butler Report concluded in reflecting on the public use of intelligence on Iraqi WMD, both careful explanations of intelligence uses and limitations and clear dividing lines between intelligence assessment and policy advocacy are needed. Conclusions reached publicly and privately must also align. This may not sit well with policymakers hoping to use intelligence to incriminate enemies, justify their actions, and persuade partners to go along with them in future crises.
Intelligence agencies should be careful to protect their credibility with the public. Likewise, media intermediaries and public consumers alike need to approach such intelligence-led communications with a careful, critical eye.