Doubling Down on Transparency and Downgraded Intelligence
The United States is harnessing the release of carefully unclassified information in confronting our nation’s adversaries, and the method, so far, is proving to be powerful, according to Jon Finer, principal deputy national security advisor of the United States in the Executive Office of the President.
“The delivered and authorized public release of intelligence, what we now refer to as strategic downgrades, has become an important tool of the Biden Administration’s foreign policy,” the security advisor shared. “This is a tool that we have found to be highly effective, but also one that we believe must be wielded carefully within strict parameters and oversight.”
Speaking today at the Intelligence and National Security Summit, hosted by AFCEA International and INSA, July 13-14 at the Gaylord National Resort, Maryland, Finer outlined how U.S. national security leaders and the president are using the strategic downgrades tool under certain conditions. Finer’s presentation included a discussion with moderator Lesley Ireland, former assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis, U.S. Department of Treasury, and currently on the Citi Group board of directors.
In August of 2021, when the intelligence community began seeing Russia’s military buildup and intent to invade Ukraine, the United States was confronted with what to do with this information, Finer said. At the time, it was hard to believe that Putin would risk launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “Many consumers of this intelligence inside the administration initially doubted that war could possibly be Putin’s ultimate intention.”
However, with time and more information, “the intel picture…. became increasingly impossible to deny,” Finer stated. “The picture came in focus as we moved into October when our morning intelligence readings at the White House included assessments, such as ‘Moscow preparing to take Ukraine if Putin greenlights plan,’ and ‘Putin probably prepared to risk war over Ukraine.’”
The traditional methods—of sharing intel with a handful of allies, careful diplomacy with a narrow circle of partners or a public warning to Russia that would not reveal the extent of the United States' knowledge—were considered.
However, the president selected a different path. “We knew that this was not a standard moment, given the enormous stakes of a major land war in Europe, involving a nuclear power and the profound threat to global stability that entailed,” Finer stated. “So instead, we settled on a strategy that had no real precedent. In close cooperation with the intelligence community, we doubled down on transparency and downgraded intelligence.”
The move allowed the United States to warn Ukraine well ahead of the invasion, to inform U.S. allies and partners and garner support. More importantly, declassifying and releasing information about Russia’s military activities denied the adversary’s ability to later fabricate a justification for their premeditated invasion. “When we first saw indications of major buildup of Russian forces on the border, Russia claimed it was just conducting normal military exercises,” he said.
Washington was able to confront senior Russian officials—privately and directly—and share critical intelligence with a larger group of allies and partners “than we ever had before” and publicly expose Putin’s plan. On day one of the conflict, the national security advisor said that the United States was on “the same page with our partners and allies and together we are able to respond immediately,” with an already figured out strategy of military assistance to Ukraine, along with the sanctions and export controls against Russia, steps that usually take weeks to hammer out.
“The goal of this playbook was simple,” Finer explained. “Leverage our intelligence insights to ensure our allies and partners shared a common understanding of Russia's plans so that we could together prepare an immediate policy response that consisted of economic costs to Russia, a surge of support to Ukraine and reassurance from our allies that we wouldn't let the conflict spread. It also enabled us to frustrate Russia’s ability to create false pretenses. CIA Director Bill Burns traveled to Moscow in early November 2021 to make clear to President Putin and his closest advisors that we knew what they were planning and to warn them that our response would be severe.”
In developing the method, leaders instituted “guardrails” in the form of policies, processes and objectives that will dictate whether and when to downgrade intelligence for national security purposes. They also outlined rules to protect sources and methods.
For example, intelligence involving knowledge of attacks on Ukrainian citizens or nonmilitary, critical infrastructure, that data may be considered for a downgrade and release.
“We have since established a clear process for reviewing and approving downgrades, centralized to the National Security Council staff and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence,” he noted. “And to make sure that we are taking acceptable risks for the most desirable foreign policy benefits, we have prioritized key topics, including attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, so that we can warn the Ukrainians and underline Russian denials, including Russian false flag operations and other disinformation.”
According to Finer, the administration envisions using strategic downgrades in the future. The challenges for the United States will be to avoid creating a permission environment of intelligence releases. The Use of strategic downgrades will also have to be balanced within a greater foreign policy and military approach.
The administration employed the tool this spring regarding China’s high-altitude balloon that traversed the United States.
Jon Finer principal deputy National Security Advisor of the United States @WhiteHouse: the strategic downgrade of classified information as Russia prepared to invade Ukraine in 2021 was a novel way of using intel w/our partners & Allie’s @AFCEA @INSAlliance #IntelSummit23 pic.twitter.com/ThQ80tAZNi— Kimberly Underwood (@Kunderwood_SGNL) July 14, 2023
In addition, the security advisor believes that the declassification of intelligence and strategic sharing helped dissuade other countries from supporting Russia in the last year.
“As the war began to turn badly for Russia and their munition stocks dwindled, Moscow sought military equipment and support from other countries,” Finer continued. “But their effort faced a significant vulnerability. Countries wanting to provide support to Russia tended to want to do so in secret. By exposing their plans publicly alongside our allies and partners, we put foreign governments on the defensive, and in many cases deterred and swayed them from providing further support to Moscow.”
This includes the People’s Republic of China, the national security advisor said, as Russia wanted to acquire military armor, including drones. The United States “communicated our concerns to Beijing” and publicly released information.
“As a result, we have yet to see the PRC provide substantial lethal aid to Russia,” he noted.