Editor’s Note: Carrie Cordero, a CNN legal and national security analyst, is the Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. She previously served as counsel to the assistant attorney general for national security and senior associate general counsel at the office of the Director of National Intelligence. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
The Biden administration’s aggressive disclosure of intelligence information in recent weeks has not prevented Russian leader Vladimir Putin from launching a military assault on Ukraine, intended to cut short its nascent experiment with democracy.
But while releasing the intelligence may not have changed Putin’s behavior, it very well may have changed the world’s reaction to his current assault on democracy. The Russian President’s attempts at obfuscation and deflection appear to have largely failed. And much of the international community sees his attack on an independent and free nation for what it is.
Indeed, the world’s eyes have been opened to a despot’s perverse plot to crush a sovereign nation every step of the muddied way. Most importantly, everyone is on notice that this attack has been unprovoked and unjustified.
Looking back over the past several weeks, the crisis in Ukraine presented a need for diplomatic, military and economic decisions by the United States and its allies in Europe on a daily basis. To inform those decisions, policymakers have been relying on the foreign intelligence collection and analysis capabilities of the United States and its close partners.
In a departure from how modern presidents generally handle national security information, the US government made a significant amount of intelligence available in real time. In doing so, the intelligence community and the Biden administration have taken substantial risks.
One risk of being forward-leaning in public disclosure is that the intelligence analysis could turn out to be wrong. That seems highly unlikely at this stage. For days, the impending assault was previewed by US officials in official statements and media reports. And, in just the past 24 hours, Russian forces attacked.
Had the attack not happened at all, the intelligence community and the US government could have been accused of crying wolf – or even provoking hostilities. Even when done with the best intentions, public disclosure of intelligence that does not pan out as predicted opens the intelligence community up to allegations of misleading the public. Worse yet, the intelligence community could be accused of lying. It takes years to rebuild trust when disclosures are later undermined by facts.
Another risk of disclosure is that adversaries, wiser due to the releases themselves, intentionally seek to deflect and mislead. Given the sophisticated nature of Russian intelligence, information operations and related cyber activities, it is not inconceivable that the Russian government would take steps to throw off US and Western intelligence services, both to hide their own actions and to damage the credibility of Western intelligence services.
A third and related risk – usually the one most cited by the intelligence community and its veterans – is that by declassifying information, the government may reveal sensitive sources and methods which are key to how it does its work. In this case, the intelligence material declassified and released by the Biden administration has been substantive and not technical.
Biden has told the American public and the world what the US government has learned, not how it has learned it. Still, a capable adversary could perhaps glean clues about the origin of the intelligence and change modes of communication or take enhanced efforts to thwart it.
In contrast, looking back over the past several years, the US presidential election of 2016 was a missed opportunity for the intelligence community to provide warning to the public. As early as 2014, the Russian government designed and implemented an effort to influence the US election by targeting election infrastructure and Americans’ use of online communications platforms.
In addition to the findings of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence conducted an extensive bipartisan review, producing five volumes describing the activities.
In this case, it was not until years after the fact that the public was provided with an explanation of what had transpired. Leading up to the 2016 election, the Obama administration was sluggish to digest and then reticent to reveal what it was seeing regarding Russian efforts to influence the election. As a result, the country was largely caught flat footed.
This was a defensible position at the time, even if it turned out to be insufficient. It was consistent with the traditional role of the intelligence community, which is to provide advice and counsel to the president and policymakers behind the scenes, not to publish intelligence in real time.
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A different path was taken leading up to the 2020 election: senior national security officials periodically released information revealing foreign attempts at influence. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, in particular, took the lead in developing mechanisms to provide accurate information about the state of election security and dispel myths pervading the information space, whether foreign or domestically instigated.
In the present crisis, the Biden administration’s push forward on intelligence transparency this year prepared not only US policymakers, but the world, for what is currently transpiring. While the disclosures did not affect the Russian government’s behavior, they likely have affected the international community’s understanding and response, even beyond those close partners with whom the US typically shares sensitive information.
Meanwhile, the American people have been provided a window into the substantial investment they have made into a robust intelligence capability that costs them tens of billions of dollars annually. That considerable capability has contributed to a prepared, more accurately informed world. In the 21st century, accurate information is perhaps our most valuable resource when it comes to international relations.
Continued releases of intelligence will be important in countering false Russian government narratives – and those of its surrogates. If done with deliberate purpose, analytical rigor and care, the risks outlined above are worth it.