This drew attention to a statement that hit headlines around the world: U.S. officials said they had signs that Russia may be preparing to use chemical agents in Ukraine.
This was later publicly stated by President Joe Biden. But three U.S. officials told NBC News this week that there was no evidence that Russia had brought chemical weapons near Ukraine. They said the United States had released information to deter Russia from using banned munitions.
This is one of a number of examples of the Biden administration breaking a recent precedent by posting declassified intelligence as part of an information war against Russia. The administration did so even when intelligence was unreliable, officials say, to throw Russian President Vladimir Putin off balance. According to officials, the unprecedented intelligence, coordinated by the White House National Security Council, was so frequent and extensive that security forces had to deploy more staff to work on the declassification process, clearing the information so that it would not reveal sources and methods.
Observers of all stripes called it a bold and successful strategy – though not without risks.
“This is the strangest manifestation of intelligence as an instrument of state power that I have seen or heard of since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said Tim Weiner, author of CIA History 2006 and Stupidity 2020. and Glory ”, a look at the rivalry between the US and Russia over the decades. “It certainly blunted and neutralized the Kremlin’s disinformation weapons.”
Four days before the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the United States published photos of a spy plane to show that the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear missiles off the coast of Florida. The Biden administration began publishing a number of intelligence reports on Putin’s plans and intentions before the invasion of Ukraine.
Just this week, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan stood in the White House rostrum, reading what officials called more classified intelligence, arguing that Russia’s withdrawal from areas around Kiev was not a retreat but a strategic redeployment signaling a significant offensive in the east. countries. and southern Ukraine, which US officials say could be a protracted and bloody brawl.
The idea is to anticipate and thwart the Kremlin’s tactics, to complicate its military campaign, “They are undermining Moscow’s propaganda and preventing Russia from determining how the world perceives war,” said a spokesman for the Western government, who is familiar with the strategy.
Many U.S. officials acknowledged that the U.S. used information as a weapon, even if confidence in the accuracy of the information was not high. Sometimes they used intelligence to contain low-confidence intelligence, as in the case of chemical agents, and other times, the official said, the United States was simply “trying to get into Putin’s head.”
Some officials, however, believe that trying to get into Putin’s head is a pointless practice, because he will do what he wants, no matter what.
“On the spot”
The biggest success of the U.S. information offensive may have been the delay in the invasion itself for weeks or months, which officials believe they did with accurate predictions that Russia intends to attack based on definitive data. By the time Russia introduced its troops, the West had represented a united front.
Prior to the US invasion, it was stated that Russia intended to launch a false flag attack on members of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population as an excuse for war, and that plans included a video with fake corpses. The video never appeared; Russia has consistently stated that it has invaded to protect ethnic Russians from the “Nazis” in Ukraine.
The United States has clearly predicted that Putin intends to end the attack, even if other Western countries, particularly France, have argued otherwise. Last week, the head of France’s military intelligence resigned due to a wrong call.
The former U.S. official said administration officials believe the strategy delayed Putin’s invasion from the first week of January until after the Olympics, and that the delay gave the U.S. valuable time to bring allies on the same page in terms of Russia’s threat level and how to to answer.
CIA Director William Burns, a former ambassador to Russia, told lawmakers at a threat hearing in Congress last month that “in all the years I’ve spent as a career diplomat, I’ve seen too many instances where we’ve lost information wars with the Russians. “
Now, he said, “with caution, we have lost the reason that Putin, in particular, often uses.”
“I think it was a real benefit for the Ukrainians,” he said.
The policy has elicited generous praise even from some Republicans.
“You were on the spot in your intelligence,” Member of Parliament Brian Fitzpatick, R-Pa., Said at the House of Representatives’s annual hearing on threats around the world last month, addressing Burns and other intelligence chiefs. “Your decision to declassify both the form and the way you did it saved lives. Sleep well, and thank you for that. ”
But the strategy has its dangers. One of them, a Western official said, is that doing something clearly wrong would be very detrimental to U.S. authority and would play into Moscow’s hands.
Disclosure as a deterrent
As the war continued, the administration used intelligence to warn of possible Russian actions and to draw attention to Russia’s military failures.
Sometimes the Biden administration leaked information that it trusted less, or about things that were more likely than likely.
Last week, U.S. officials told reporters they had intelligence that Putin was being misled by his own advisers, who were afraid to tell him the truth.
But when Biden was asked about the disclosure later that day – after it hit headlines around the world – he was less accurate.
“This is an open question. There are many assumptions, ”Biden told reporters. “But it seems – I’m not saying this with certainty – he seems to be isolating himself.”
The extent to which Putin is isolated or relies on false information cannot be verified, said Paul Pilar, a retired U.S. intelligence career officer. “You can’t prove or disprove these things,” he said.
Two U.S. officials have said the intelligence on whether Putin’s inner circle lied to him is not convincing, based on analysis rather than hard evidence. Other officials disputed this, saying the intelligence was very reliable and had been verified at the highest level.
In other information, US officials said that one of the reasons for not supplying MiG fighters to Ukraine is that intelligence has shown that Russia will view the move as an escalation.
That was true, but it was also true of the Stinger missiles that the Biden administration did deliver, two U.S. officials said, adding that the administration had declassified information about the MiG to back up the argument against not giving them to Ukraine.
In addition, allegations that Russia turned to China for potential military assistance lacked strong evidence, a European official and two U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials said there was no indication that China was considering supplying weapons to Russia. The Biden administration described it as a warning to China not to do so, they said.
A European official described the disclosure as “a public game to prevent any military support from China”.
The game or not, U.S. intelligence officials say it was a success. Intelligence is rarely final, and in some cases Biden officials have calculated that it is better to warn of what may not happen than to remain silent and watch it unfold.
“When we talk about it, it doesn’t have to be solid inference,” the US official said. “It is more important to get ahead of them – Putin in particular – before they do something. It is preventive. We don’t always want to wait until intelligence is 100 percent sure they’ll do something. We want to move forward to stop them. “
The official said there was a wide-ranging debate over whether to disclose that the Russians had a blacklist of Ukrainian enemies they intended to arrest and possibly kill as soon as they took control. Officials weighed the potential harm from divulging intelligence. “It was a serious decision,” the official said.
But this information seems to have been corroborated by witnesses from cities that were once occupied by the Russians and now left where political assassinations have been documented.
Some U.S. officials have for years advocated a strategy of further leaning forward in declassifying and publishing intelligence as U.S. opponents have become adept at using modern communication platforms to spread propaganda.
In 2020, nine of the 11 U.S. military commanders signed a memorial urging the U.S. intelligence community to declassify more information to counter disinformation and propaganda from Moscow and Beijing.
Officers wrote that the United States can bolster support from allies only by “breaking the truth in open access against America’s contenders in the 21st century.” But efforts to compete in the battle of ideas, they added, are being held back by overly strict practices of secrecy.
“We are asking for this help to better enable the United States, as well as its allies and partners, to win without fighting, to fight now in the so-called gray areas and to supply ammunition in the long war of narratives,” the four-star said. the generals wrote to the acting director of national intelligence at the time, Joseph Maguire.
“Unfortunately, we continue to lose opportunities to explain the truth, resist distortions, break through false stories and influence events in a timely manner to change the situation,” the generals said.
In the past, the United States sat idly by when Russia was waging an information war.
In 2014, a few days before Russia invaded the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, Russia published a recording of an explicit telephone conversation between high-ranking US diplomat Victoria Nuland and the then ambassador to Ukraine, in which Nuland insulted the European Union.
The move was part of a wave of disinformation and propaganda from Moscow over the capture of Crimea. But the Obama administration did not respond.
This is because the U.S. abandoned the propaganda wars of the great powers after the 9/11 attacks, Weiner said.
“So what was it on the part of the United States about all this?” Weiner asked. “Crickets, nothing, lightning. They had no answer. “
Biden’s strategy was different.
Pilar said the Biden administration took a significant risk in predicting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which was a bold move that was justified by Putin’s actions.
“This shows that there is a good reason for this information,” Pilar said. “It not only turned out to be right … but it was obviously presented to the president with enough confidence that he felt confident when walking on the limb as much as he did.”
Pilar said: “Boy, if there was no invasion, it would have a huge effect of” wolf’s cry “and would make our president look very bad.”