Presenting intelligence: from Iraq WMD to the new era of ‘strategic downgrades’

Recent research from ASPI finds that Philip Flood’s 2004 inquiry into Australian intelligence agencies proved an inflection point in the national intelligence community’s development. In addition, the Flood report grappled with a matter at the heart of the intelligence failure on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and one of significant contemporary relevance: public presentation of intelligence for policy purposes.

Flood laid out cons, including risks to intelligence sources and methods, sensitivities of intelligence-sharing arrangements and partnerships, and the possibility that public exposure could distort the intelligence-assessment process by making analysts more risk-averse. He might have added a few other negatives to the list:

  • the threat posed by the aggregation of data—the ‘mosaic effect’. Even seemingly innocuous data can be consequential when aggregated and recontextualised
  • the risk that the nuances in intelligence assessments will be lost in public presentation (a factor in the Iraq WMD debacle)
  • the possible deleterious effects of selective declassification on government transparency.

Nonetheless, Flood acknowledged circumstances in which democratic policy decisions (especially about going to war) necessitated some form of suitable public release of intelligence. He pointed out a common-place precedent: use of sanitised intelligence to inform threat warnings to the Australian public (in the form of travel advisories).

Today, release of intelligence for statecraft purposes remains highly relevant, as evident from attempts by the US and UK governments in early 2022 to deter Russia from invading Ukraine by publicly revealing their intelligence about Moscow’s intentions and issuing regular intelligence-based updates.

Of course, the Iraq and Ukraine instances are not unique. Cold War governments on both sides of the iron curtain were prepared to leverage intelligence publicly for policy purposes or simply one-upmanship. Witness duelling defector statements and press conferences, the Kennedy administration’s public messaging during the Cuban missile crisis (including hitherto sensitive aerial imagery) and later the US declassification of satellite images highlighting Soviet violations of nuclear test bans and continuing bioweapons capability.

This continued in the 21st century. The UK publicly confirmed intelligence in November 2001 indicating al-Qaeda’s responsibility for the 9/11 terror attacks, and the Obama administration released intelligence obtained during the raid on Osama bin Ladin’s hideout. The UK would also issue a public statement on Syrian chemical weapons use, sourced to intelligence, in 2013 (including release of a complete Joint Intelligence Committee assessment). There are also regular references to intelligence-based conclusions without necessarily releasing intelligence itself—such as Russian culpability for the Salisbury poisonings. And there have been various US government indictments of hostile cyber operations (Chinese, Russian, Iranian, North Korean), in addition to cyberattack attribution by governments more generally.

Confronted in August 2021 with Russia’s worrying military build-up and hostile intent towards its neighbour, the US government first sought to leverage its intelligence knowledge behind closed doors. So, in mid-November 2021, CIA Director Bill Burns was sent to confront Moscow with what the US knew about its plans for an invasion. But, as Burns has since commented: ‘I found Putin and his senior advisers unmoved by the clarity of our understanding of what he was planning, convinced that the window was closing for his opportunity to dominate Ukraine. I left even more troubled than when I arrived.’

The Biden administration changed tack, to what Dan Lomas has termed ‘pre-buttal’, beginning in mid-January 2022 when the White House press secretary openly briefed the media on a Russian plot to manufacture a pretext for invasion, using a false-flag sabotage team. A fortnight later, in response to a press question, the Pentagon acknowledged that it knew the Russians had already prepared a propaganda video supporting this invasion pretext, for broadcast once an invasion commenced. Then, on 15 and 18 February, President Joe Biden revealed that US intelligence was now aware that more than 150,000 troops were assembled on Ukraine’s border awaiting an order to move. These efforts were buttressed by the UK’s public reference to Russian plans to install a friendly regime in Kyiv via a coup prior to the planned invasion.

Yet, as we know, the Russian invasion of Ukraine commenced on 24 February.

So, were these efforts a success or a failure? The obvious answer is they failed: Russia wasn’t deterred. But was deterrence actually possible? And the public release of intelligence did complicate and disrupt Moscow’s invasion plans and arguably contributed somewhat to the Russian military’s poor performance in the early stages of the conflict. What’s more, the audience wasn’t just Russia. Public release, beyond traditional intelligence sharing in classified channels, had the effect of alerting and cuing Ukraine. Perhaps most materially, the approach galvanised third parties post-invasion, especially in Europe. This involved overcoming some lingering distrust associated with the disastrous efforts to leverage intelligence diplomatically in 2002–03 over Iraq.

The US government has since explicitly laid out its strategy for what it calls ‘strategic downgrades’. It is an increasingly proactive approach to public disclosures aided by the opportunities presented by an overwhelming volume of available open-source intelligence that allows for effective obfuscation of the actual sensitive sources of the material disclosed.

Last month, Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer detailed this strategy in a speech:

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. 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.

This speech was itself a form of public release of intelligence—and presumably was targeted again at both allies and adversaries.

The US has deployed this approach beyond just attempts to deter the Russians. For example, it has applied ‘strategic downgrades’ in relation to Chinese arms supplies to Russia, Wagner Group activities in Mali, and its own findings in relation to Chinese ‘spy balloons’.

The approach is underpinned by a formalised framework developed by US policymakers. Related decision-making is centralised in the National Security Council and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. And its application is apparently limited to select situations—for example, when civilian lives or infrastructure are at risk, or to counter disinformation or false-flag operations.

Guidelines require that downgrades be accurate, be based on verifiable reporting, and be part of a broader plan that includes diplomacy as well as security and economic assistance. According to Finer: ‘It should always be in service of clear policy objectives. It’s not like you just get a piece of very interesting information that could sort of damage one of your adversaries and you decide that could be embarrassing to them, let’s put it out.’

‘Strategic downgrades’ are a potentially important tool for democratic governments, and US formalisation of the related strategy is a welcome development.

But public presentation of intelligence for policy effect deserves careful consideration and risk management. The landscape is complicated by the marked decline in public trust across the Western world and the emergence of a more uncertain strategic environment since 2003. Notably, invocation of intelligence in the political sphere—as with, inter alia, Iraq WMD, the course of the ‘global war on terror’ and Russia’s attempted election interference—necessarily politicises that same intelligence. Perhaps the most alarming example is the degree to which circulation of US intelligence on Russian interference in an increasingly toxic US political environment has effectively tarred US intelligence agencies with the same toxic politics.

And, as Finer observed: ‘You’ve got to be right, because if you go out alarming the world that something terrible is going to happen and you have it wrong, it will be much harder to use the tool effectively the next time.’

I think Flood would have agreed.