Disclosing Classified Information as a Weapon

Between 2014 and 2022 we witnessed a significant shift in intelligence sharing. The United States and the United Kingdom have been sharing intelligence with the public as much as they could before and during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They have been doing so for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they tried to prevent the invasion as such and only afterwards they moved to a more realistic goal, which is analysed in the presented text.

In general, intelligence agencies remain quiet for most of the time and inform as few individuals as possible about their activities and gained information. This strategy was, however, altered as Russia began to prepare for an invasion of Ukraine. Before the invasion took place, the US and the UK officials made their edited intelligence reports available for public use. Some referred to it as an unprecedented action in intelligence sharing [1], since the very nature of intelligence services implies that their information must be classified. The main reason for it is to protect their sources, mainly in the case of human intelligence, in order to prevent any harm to the sources, as well as to ensure the continuation of intelligence gathering. The question arises, therefore, what motivated the US and UK intelligence services to go beyond this line and start disclosing some of their intelligence?

Firstly, the Western governments tried to deter Russia. The very first and rather subtle public step against Russia was the journey of CIA director William Burns to Moscow in November 2021. Burns travelled to Russia to warn Kremlin that Washington knows about their plans. [2] After this unsuccessful “deterrence operation” more direct “intelligence diplomacy” had to be deployed. In December, unclassified satellite images of the Russian army situated near Ukraine’s borders were “obtained” by reporters of the Washington Post. [3]

In January, more nuanced news emerged, e. g. Russian plan to release a false-flag video [4], and Moscow’s plot to install a pro-Russian regime in Ukraine. [5] Moreover, Jake Sullivan, the National Security adviser of the US president, told reporters that Russians plan a whole false-flag operation similar to the Crimea campaign. “Our intelligence community has developed information, which has now been downgraded, that Russia is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating the pretext for an invasion,” said Sullivan. [6] Finally, in February, Intelligence officers revealed that Putin had decided to invade Ukraine a week before a real invasion. [7]

Legitimacy and Reputation

The process of disclosing classified information as a whole is already a long historical issue, mostly addressed since the beginning of the Cold War. In the early decades of the Cold War, the abusive behaviour of certain intelligence services crossed the boundaries of democratic principles of the modern state on behalf of “national security”. As a result, institutional control was established over Intelligence services (among other actions taken). [8] An example of such oversight might be the National Act of 1947 which gives the US Congress the right to be “fully informed”. Despite this, many US presidents have interpreted this provision to mean that they only need to inform the most important legislators, and not the entire Congress.

The second phase of opening intelligence services to the public happened when a new set of abuses had been unveiled between the 1970s (such as the Watergate scandal) and the fall of the Berlin wall. New tools were introduced, such as the declassification of documents, ministerial posts responsible for agencies, new controlling powers for parliaments, and finally, the introduction of intelligence studies to universities. [8] In the US, the first congressional committee oversight over Intelligence services has been established at this phase. In the UK, the Security Service Act of 1989 gave the Security Service (MI5) its first official legal foundation.

The last phase intertwines with the post-Cold era and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Therefore, the change was two-fold. Firstly, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Intelligence services needed to redefine the legitimization of their work. The 9/11 events provided the needed argument for their continuing existence, and the services were granted much more power to prevent similar attacks in the future. However, their constant presence in the life of ordinary citizens had to be balanced with greater transparency and openness to the public. [8] Thus, the intelligence agencies have had more explanation and public responsibility duties since then. Similarly in the UK, the, Investigatory Powers Tribunal has been established in 2000 to oversight surveillance of the public and in 2016 the mandate of the Tribunal was extended by Investigatory Powers Commission. Furthermore, The Intelligence Services Act 1994 established The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament which is a statutory body responsible for overseeing the activities of the UK’s intelligence agencies. Its powers are strengthened by the Justice and Security Act 2013.

Public security camera. Source: Unsplash.

It is apparent that the intelligence services open to the public every time they needed support for their legitimacy and reputation which serves mostly as a counterbalance to the bad public perception of their activities. That was caused not only by the aforementioned greater presence in the everyday lives of the citizens of Western nations but also by the infamous legacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Back then, intelligence services used false intelligence as a justification for the invasion.

In the contemporary situation, London and Washington revealed some classified information about the Russian invasion to build necessary trust between the public and intelligence services in advance. For sure, legitimization and reputation were important factors although not the only ones. There are several other reasons why intelligence agencies currently reveal their reports to the public.

Strategic Gains of Disclosing Classified Information and the Case of Ukraine

In their work on intelligence sharing, researchers Dylan and Maguire describe four strategic gains to explain the phenomenon of disclosing classified information: action gains, support gains, resilience gains, and incrimination gains. [10] When a politician publicly shares secret reports for action gains, it is done to persuade allies to some sort of action against an adversary. Support gains are used for justifying state activities such as the already mentioned Iraq invasion of 2003 and its justification via the alleged development of weapons of mass destruction. Resilience gains aim to improve the resilience of citizens against an adversary and its actions (e.g., cybersecurity threats, propaganda). Finally, incrimination aims to try to disclose the present or future actions of an adversary. For example, the revelation of photographs from a U2 plane during the Cuban Missile Crisis. [10] Usually, more than one strategic gain is pursued by these actions.

In the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is possible to identify three main goals. The maximalist approach aimed to deter Russia from invasion or any other hostile action against Ukraine. When applying the above-described categories, this would count as incrimination gains. “We have already declassified compelling intelligence exposing Russian intent to install a puppet regime in Ukraine and we will continue to disclose any Russian use of cyber-attacks, false flag operations or disinformation,” said then-PM of UK Boris Johnson about the first step in “credible deterrence” strategy on January 25th, 2022. [11] Unfortunately, this maximalist goal of deterrence of Russia was not achieved. Nevertheless, the two other aims were more successful.

Photo taken by a U2 plane. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The second goal was based on action gains. In an effort to put pressure on its European partners to adopt a stronger stance against Russia, the US and the UK have been openly sharing their intelligence. [10] Most significantly, this was concentrated on undermining French and German stances, which view Russia differently from the US and UK’s geopolitical perspectives. After revealing the intelligence, the German and French governments could not dismiss the danger of invasion as easily as before. Thus, both governments had to leave their approach of strategic ambiguity manifested, for example, in Emmanuel Macron’s calls to Vladimir Putin about the Finlandization of Ukraine. In February, German chancellor Olaf Scholz warned Russia against its plan to invade Ukraine. [12] Although Germany had blocked arms shipments to Ukraine before the invasion, after the invasion Chancellor Scholz announced that he was reversing the post-World War II policy of not sending lethal weapons into conflicts. [13] Further pressure from the EU and NATO members which could be backed by disclosed information in the end pushed Germany from words towards action.

The Truth Before Lies

Thirdly and lastly, sharing of intelligence has aimed to “take the narrative back”. For this purpose, it could be classified as a combination of resilience and incrimination gains. British and American officials leaked information to disarm Russian propaganda in its very beginning. “We’re calling out Russia’s plans. Not because we want a conflict, but because we are doing everything in our power to remove any reason Russia may give to justify invading Ukraine,” wrote Joe Biden on February 19. [14] Then-foreign secretary of the UK Liz Truss wrote on February 3: “The UK and our allies will continue to expose Russian subterfuge and propaganda and call it out for what it is.” [15]

This approach seems to be successful even in the American polarized population. American public polls show overwhelmingly positive opinions in support of Ukraine and condemn Russia. [16] Also, in Europe, where Russian gas is superbly important and sanctions against Russia hurt Europeans as well, people have a clear opinion on Russia and its invasion. The polls in Europe throughout the time show that the vast majority of Europe’s population condemns Russia and blames Putin for the invasion even though results vary across different countries. [17] It may be argued that western countries have reclaimed the narrative and have maintained control of the discourse both before and after the invasion. The narrative supremacy generated domestic support for more dire steps taken against Russia.

President Volodymyr Zelensky on a press conference with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in February 2022. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Interestingly enough, there was no similar approach to publicly shared intelligence adopted during the Crimea annexation in 2014. Narrative supremacy was not achieved and no significant response was developed from Western powers in that context. There was room for confusion and narrative distractions such as the Russian use of “little green men”. It is now clear that the West was not prepared for the asymmetric nature of hybrid warfare deployed by Russia in 2014. [18] Moreover, there have been many asymmetric interferences by Russia for the next several years without any significant response from the West (e.g., presidential elections in the US in 2016, the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal UK, the sabotage of a private military warehouse in Czechia, the election manipulation in Montenegro or Spain). [18] In addition to the inexperience in informational warfare, Obama’s senior intelligence officers did not allow any intelligence sharing with NATO, let alone the general public regarding Russia’s actions in Crimea in 2014. [19] Similarly, intelligence officers of the Obama administration did not grant permission for intelligence sharing during the Georgia crisis in 2008 and intervention in Syria in 2015. [10]

Without a doubt, there are objective reasons not to share intelligence. The most obvious argument for not disclosing confidential information is the risk of adversary adaptation to intelligence tools. Even when using a non-aggressive method of information gathering like open-source intelligence, one’s target will conceal their information more effectively the next time. Russia banned members of the armed force to carry “smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets capable of recording and storing information while on duty” in 2020 because Russian soldiers have been leaking sensitive information. [20] This may be what caused some senior Obama administration officials to obstruct the release of Russia-related intelligence in 2014. This time, however, after the experience of the 2014 invasion, the White House seems to have the upper hand when it comes to disclosure information. Burton Gerber, the former head of the Soviet section at the CIA, argued that publicly shared intelligence during the Ukraine invasion in 2022 was White House policy, not a CIA policy. Gerber also worries that Putin could plant false information where he knows his regime is compromised. „I think our side has said too much,“ Gerber said. [21]

The American and British Approaches

Given the experience of narrative loss in 2014, a qualitative change in the perception of publicly shared intelligence was much needed. The UK and the US chose different approaches. As Gerber points out, the American approach is more focused on a personal level and thus, inherently more volatile. Most US reforms regarding intelligence sharing means have been attributed to three people, who have also shared the majority of the country’s intelligence with the general public: Avril Haines (Director of National Intelligence), William Burns (Director of the CIA), and Jake Sullivan (National Security Advisor). [10] All of them were appointed by Joe Biden and they are his close partners.

The UK, on the other hand, has taken a more institution-focused approach. A report by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee in 2020 addressed the need for action against Russian disinformation. [22] Also, this Committee called the problem with Russian propaganda and disinformation a “hot potato” which all departments have been trying to avoid. [23] Therefore, Liz Truss, then-Foreign Secretary, ordered the establishment of a new unit that will combat Russian propaganda by releasing British intelligence to the domestic public and even the international one. [24] Experts in analysis, communication, disinformation debunking, and behavioural science were recruited from different departments of the UK government to construct the unit, which is now known as the Government Information Cell. [22] It is presumed that this unit stands behind the continuous flow of intelligence on the official website of the British government and even on the Twitter account of the Ministry of Defence, which reveals certain information about the Russian invasion every week. [25]

Intelligence Update from UK Ministry of Defence Twitter account. Source: Twitter.

Lastly, there is a question of future development. The current success in narrative supremacy could lead to further enhancement of this ongoing trend of intelligence sharing, even though the maximalist aim did not end up in the favour of Western powers. Even in the US, there are voices to construct a unit akin to the UK’s Information Cell. [26] Publicly shared intelligence could support the resilience of citizens of democratic countries against autocratic propaganda. However, this success could lead to overutilizing of intelligence and all officials should be aware of the shadow of the Iraq war. Building up trust is a long and tedious process meanwhile destroying it is a matter of a single failure. At a more practical level, all decision-makers should keep in mind that with every piece of information that they disclose, they not only gain strategic influence but also provide their adversaries with hints and clues about their valuable sources, thereby inherently endangering them as well as their ongoing operations and credibility as a partner or even an employer.

Article was reviewed by: Tomáš Zwiefelhofer, Veronika Čáslavová


[1] Corera, G. (2022, April 9). Ukraine: Inside the spies’ attempts to stop the war. BBC News. Retrieved October 15, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-61044063

[2] Bertrand, N., Sciutto, J., & Atwood, K. (2021, November 6). CIA director dispatched to Moscow to warn Russia over troop buildup near Ukraine. CNN. Retrieved October 15, 2022, from https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/05/politics/bill-burns-moscow-ukraine/index.html

[3] Harris, S., & Sonne, P. (2021, December 4). Russia planning massive military offensive against Ukraine involving 175,000 troops, U.S. intelligence warns. Washington Post. Retrieved October 15, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/russia-ukraine-invasion/2021/12/03/98a3760e-546b-11ec-8769-2f4ecdf7a2ad_story.html

[4] Holland, S., & Hunnicutt, T. (2022, February 3). U.S. intelligence: Russia may stage video to create pretext for Ukraine war. Reuters. Retrieved October 15, 2022, from https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/us-intelligence-alleges-russia-has-plan-fabricate-pretext-attack-ukraine-reports-2022-02-03/

[5] BBC News. (2022, January 23). Russia-Ukraine tensions: UK warns of plot to install pro-Moscow ally. Retrieved October 15, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-60095459

[6] Bertrand, N., & Herb, J. (2022, January 14). First on CNN: US intelligence indicates Russia preparing operation to justify invasion of Ukraine. CNN. Retrieved October 15, 2022, from https://edition.cnn.com/2022/01/14/politics/us-intelligence-russia-false-flag/index.html

[7] Jeong, A., Hendrix, S., Wagner, J., & Alfaro, M. (2022, February 19). Biden says U.S. believes Putin has decided to invade Ukraine. Washington Post. Retrieved October 15, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/02/18/russia-ukraine-updates/

[8] Díaz-Fernández, A. M., & Arcos, R. (2021, September 2). A Framework for Understanding the Strategies of Openness of the Intelligence Services. The International Journal of Intelligence, Security, and Public Affairs, 23(3), 259–280. https://doi.org/10.1080/23800992.2021.2010365

[9] Gaskarth, J. (2020). How the Iraq War led to a legacy of public mistrust in intelligence. The British Academy. Retrieved October 16, 2022, from https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/blog/how-iraq-war-led-legacy-public-mistrust-intelligence/

[10] Dylan, H., & Maguire, T. J. (2022, July 4). Secret Intelligence and Public Diplomacy in the Ukraine War. Survival, 64(4), 33–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/00396338.2022.2103257

[11] Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street. (2022, January 25). PM statement on Ukraine: 25 January 2022. GOV.UK. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-statement-on-ukraine-25-january-2022

[12] Euractiv. Scholz warns Russia of “serious consequences” if it invades Ukraine. (2022, February 11). www.euractiv.com. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/scholz-warns-russia-of-serious-consequences-if-it-invades-ukraine/

[13] Herszenhorn, D. M., Bayer, L., & Burchard, H. von der. (2022, February 26). Germany to send Ukraine weapons in historic shift on military aid. POLITICO. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from https://www.politico.eu/article/ukraine-war-russia-germany-still-blocking-arms-supplies/

[14] Biden, J. [@POTUS]. (2022, February 19). We’re calling out Russia’s plans. Not because we want a conflict, but because we are doing everything in our power to remove any reason Russia may give to justify invading Ukraine.  If Russia pursues its plans, it will be responsible for a catastrophic and needless war of choice. Twitter. https://twitter.com/potus/status/1494863649500168193

[15] Truss, L. [@trussliz]. (2022, February 3). My statement in response to US intelligence that Russia plans to fabricate an attack to justify military action against Ukraine. Twitter. https://twitter.com/trussliz/status/1489310528761643011

[16] Bowman, K. (2022, August 18). Ukraine: American Public Opinion At The Six Month Mark. Forbes. Retrieved October 20, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/bowmanmarsico/2022/08/18/ukraine-american-public-opinion-at-the-six-month-mark/

[17] European Parliament. (2022). Public opinion on the war in Ukraine. europarl.europa.eu. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/at-your-service/en/be-heard/eurobarometer/public-opinion-on-the-war-in-ukraine

[18] Beaulieu, B., & Salvo, D. (2018). NATO and Asymmetric Threats: A Blueprint for Defense and Deterrence. German Marshall Fund of the United States. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep18856

[19] Barnes, J., & Cooper, H. (2022, February 14). U.S. Battles Putin by Disclosing His Next Possible Moves. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/12/us/politics/russia-information-putin-biden.html

[20] Radio Free Europe. (2020, May 7). Putin Bans Armed Forces Members From Carrying Electronic Devices, Gadgets. rferl.org. https://www.rferl.org/a/putin-bans-armed-forces-members-from-carrying-electronic-devices-gadgets/30598888.html

[21] Weiss, M. (2022, March 2). A CIA Cold Warrior on the Intelligence War Over Ukraine. New Lines Magazine. https://newlinesmag.com/reportage/a-cia-cold-warrior-on-the-intelligence-war-over-ukraine/

[22] Dickson, A. (2022, April 7). Britain’s (opaque) war on Russian propaganda. POLITICO. https://www.politico.eu/article/the-uk-counter-disinformation-russia-kremlin-cdu-media/

[23] Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament. Russia (House of Commons Paper) HC 632. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://isc.independent.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/CCS207_CCS0221966010-001_Russia-Report-v02-Web_Accessible.pdf

[24] Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. (2022, February 25). Britain will lead by example in standing up to Vladimir Putin: article by Liz Truss. GOV.UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/britain-will-lead-by-example-in-standing-up-to-vladimir-putin-article-by-liz-truss

[25] Russian invasion of Ukraine: UK government response – GOV.UK. (2022, November 17). https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/russian-invasion-of-ukraine-uk-government-response

[26] Murphy, B. (2022, April 4). The US Needs a Center to Counter Foreign Malign Influence at Home. Defense One. https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2022/03/us-needs-center-counter-foreign-malign-influence-home/363366/


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