Commentary |
7 March 2022

The nature of US intelligence is radically different - and more open - with the Ukraine invasion

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Ben Scott
Ben Scott

Because Ukraine is so clearly winning the information war, it’s hard to imagine it could have gone any other way. Everyone seems to know who the good guys are.

Only five nations opposed a UN General Assembly resolution demanding a Russian withdrawal and 141 countries voted in favour. According to The Washington Post, a passionate speech by President Volodymyr Zelensky about Ukrainians “dying for European ideals” caused European leaders to drop their resistance to sanctions that “could drive the Russian economy into a state of near collapse”.

 

None of this was foretold. The essential Russian (and Chinese) narrative that US and NATO over-reach is the main cause of the conflict could have wider traction, especially in our confused – “post-truth” – information environment.

Russia has contributed to this environment more than any other state, using Cold War skills to disseminate disinformation. Putin used denial and deception to mask his 2014 move into eastern Ukraine. The West’s response then was much slower and less coherent.

Ukraine’s information success is based on the heroism of Ukrainians resisting on the ground but the telling and sharing of their stories, especially through social media, has been crucial. Whatever military gains Russia won by conquering tiny Snake Island in the Black Sea were outweighed by the public attention given to the defiant martyrdom of its 13 defenders. Stories like that have shifted domestic politics in the West and strengthened Zelensky’s hand.

But Ukraine has also benefited from US determination to counter Russia’s information campaign before the invasion began. As Moscow sought to muddy the picture with a lengthy and vague list of grievances, Washington sought to clarify it.

The US issued increasingly stark warnings (unfortunately rejected by Zelensky) about Moscow’s invasion plans. These were intended to build unity and paint Putin’s aggression as premeditated and unjustified. By quickly exposing elaborate Russian “false flag” plots, Washington denied Putin a manufactured provocation.

The US made unprecedented use of classified intelligence to shape the narrative. Impressively accurate intelligence was quickly declassified and shared, sometimes with allies and sometimes with the wider public. In doing so, the Biden administration was far less constrained than its predecessors by the traditional desire to protect intelligence “sources and methods”.

 

For as long as countries have been collecting intelligence, governments have been trying to use it without revealing how they got it. This difficult balance is sometimes described as a “Coventry Conundrum”. According to popular myth, Winston Churchill knew from the Enigma code breakers at Bletchley Park that Germany would bomb Coventry on the night of November 14, 1940. But so as to avoid compromising their vital work he did nothing to protect the city and more than 500 civilians died, (The true story is far more complicated.)

The world has changed a lot since then. Washington’s current tilt towards operationalising intelligence and away from it is driven by the information revolution and its contradictory consequences. On the one hand, there are fewer secrets in the world today. On the other, it’s becoming harder to determine what is true.

The world is becoming more transparent. Russia’s military build-up around Ukraine was essentially public, chiefly because of the explosion in commercial satellite-imaging technology. As technologies like these proliferate, public awareness of intelligence capabilities is also growing. Guarding intelligence sources remains as important as ever, but there is less need to protect the “methods”.

At the same time the information environment is becoming more congested. The flood of publicly available information is shifting the job of intelligence professionals from uncovering secrets to determining what is true. The spread of fake news has increased the importance of that job.

But in a contested global information environment, it’s not enough to know what is true. Governments need to speak the truth clearly and effectively if they are to counter disinformation and shape the narrative.

Still, it’s too early to properly judge Washington’s new approach to intelligence and information competition. We may never know whether the US disclosures significantly constrained or frustrated Putin, and it’s possible that Putin was able to turn them to his advantage by shutting down his vulnerabilities.

More broadly, the credibility of US intelligence still suffers from the use of faulty intelligence to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. American big tech has disseminated more misinformation than Russia. America’s own information environment remains unhealthy while the QAnon narrative – rooted in conspiracy theories about US intelligence – is still fighting fit. And all the while former president, and possible future president, Donald Trump continues to praise Putin.