In the high-stakes diplomatic and military maneuvering that surrounds the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. has engaged in a steady public release of classified information. Details about Russian troop movements and military planning, alleged Kremlin plans to create a video showing a fictional Ukrainian atrocity — the disclosures have been frequent, and well-publicized. They are also highly unusual. The releases hark back to the Cuban missile crisis nearly six decades ago, when the U.S. showed the Soviet Union — and the rest of the world — aerial reconnaissance photographs of Soviet missiles on Cuban territory. Historians later credited the public presentation of those photographs with helping pull the two countries back from the brink of a nuclear war.
The stakes aren’t quite as high today, but the current strategy is similar in that it is aimed at showing the world what U.S. intelligence says it knows about Russia’s military plans and disinformation campaigns. It’s also clearly meant to show Russian President Vladimir Putin how much the world knows about what he’s up to.
How unusual is such an approach? What are its potential risks and benefits, for Ukraine and beyond?
Grid put these questions to former acting CIA director John McLaughlin.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: It seems that almost every other day we get some remarkable and granular detail about what is going on along the Russian border with Ukraine, and in Moscow; detail about what the United States intelligence community is seeing. It’s almost as if we are sitting in the Situation Room getting a very classified briefing. How unusual is this?
John McLaughlin: What we’re seeing now, in the release of intelligence, is unprecedented. It’s a common request from the policy community — in the past, I’ve so frequently heard them say, “This is great intelligence, it’s great stuff, but we can’t use it.” Meaning we can’t go public with it. Policy people always want, understandably, to be able to deploy intelligence as a way of throwing off, or combating something from an adversary. And the intelligence community typically has been conservative about that because it risks losing sources and methods.
The intelligence community has, from time to time, released intelligence of a consequential nature. I was involved in this on North Korea, for example. But this is an unprecedented release of intelligence, both in terms of its granularity and its frequency.
In a way, for the first time that I’ve seen it, both sides are engaging in what might be called hybrid warfare, or gray warfare. Typically, the other side does it — this is a classic Russian technique to use a mix of information, psychology, conventional forces, operational forces, maneuvers, all in some sort of choreographed way to throw you off-balance. This is the first time I’ve seen the U.S. join that dance — pretty much full-scale psychological warfare, information warfare, intelligence warfare. So when this is all over, I think it’s going to be viewed as a kind of watershed moment in this competition.
Grid: We’ve had no shortage of conflicts, and probably no shortage of debates like this one about whether to release information in this way. Why do you think this is the moment when it’s happened?
JM: I think the precedent has been broken here for a number of reasons. First, this conflict with Russia is much more pointed and with broader implications than the average conflict we get into. It’s something that affects the fate of another country, it affects the strength, cohesion and fate of a major alliance — NATO — and it affects our ability to test deployment of weapons and to test the cohesion of that alliance.
It has also put us into a position where we have a major weakness that we have to make up for — and that is that we have told the other side that we will not put military forces into Ukraine; we will not fight you on the ground. That takes away a huge card in a game like this.
And so I think we’ve had to make up for it by this extraordinary use of other tools, one of which is the release of intelligence. So I think it’s combination of the seriousness of this conflict. And the fact that we’ve got one hand tied behind our back.
G: Broadly speaking, do you think it’s a good idea?
JM: I think it’s a good idea. Up to a point. It has clearly been effective in throwing Putin off balance, I believe. When you tell the world that someone is going to do something that is objectionable or illicit, and they actually are preparing to do it, I do think it causes them to hesitate, particularly when they care somewhat about what the world thinks of them.
Right now I think we are seeing one of the intelligence predictions play out in the Donbas in the eastern part of Ukraine. In other words, the prediction that the Russians would seek to cause a provocation in order to find an excuse to do something, maybe militarily, maybe diplomatically. So what has been predicted is playing out there now.
On the other hand, I don’t think this can be a permanent feature of our policy. Because after a while the novelty wears off. And after a while the other side, they won’t care.
And there’s another downside to this, which is that you are taking a risk with how you acquire this information. If it’s human sources, well, people will be looking for them. And if it’s technical sources, say intercepts, people will tighten up their communication. The adversaries already are wary about talking on phones or talking electronically. So there is that risk.
When I say policymakers are sometimes frustrated that they can’t use something — with all due respect to the policy side of this equation, sometimes they don’t really care as much as the intelligence people do. Sometimes the attitude is, Well, if we lose a source, you guys will find another one. And remarkably enough, quite often the intelligence community does. I mean, we lost the satellite phone of [Osama] bin Laden, for example, because of a newspaper which talked about his satellite phone. And we found other means.
So there’s a risk-benefit calculus that has to go on here all the time. So I’d say, effective, but not something you want to do as an ongoing, regular tool of U.S. national security, tactics and strategy.
Grid: One quick follow-up, because you remind me of an example that was so detailed — involving the allegation that the Russians were not only going to fabricate and stage an atrocity, but that they were going to videotape it; it was going to be this whole televised production. It’s a very precise, detailed plan. Is that an example where you might be worried about how the United States acquired that intelligence, and it being compromised later?
JM: I think you have to worry about it. But there are ways to fuzz up what you’re revealing as well. You can make a code more complicated by some tweaks and adjustments, and more difficult to break. And with the revelation of intelligence, you can also sometimes send them down some blind trails, to throw them off in their search for how you created this, how you learned this.
Now, there’s another aspect of this that’s worth mentioning. And here’s why this world I worked in is often called the wilderness of mirrors. Even with this downside risk, you’re also tying them [the Russians] up a bit. In other words, rather than focusing on their real mission — on you — they now have to spend some time looking internally. It churns up their system in a way that diminishes their attention and perhaps ability to focus. So it’s complicated, as all these things are.
But the bottom line is, they’re going to go looking for how you knew this. And that is going to create a risk for you, but it’s also going to tie them up in knots trying to figure it out.
Like I said, a wilderness of mirrors.
Grid: You’ve talked about the goal of unnerving the enemy — the Kremlin, in this case. To what extent is this also meant as a strategy to inform our allies and others what we know?
JM: I think that’s almost entirely it. I mean, it’s to influence the Russians, but this is why I call this a kind of hybrid war. Because you are marshaling opinion; you’re marshaling support for sanctions were this to happen, by exposing and by making very clear what the adversary is going to do. I’m sure that’s a conscious objective here.
And look what it’s done already. You know, I’ve kept my eye on or been involved in NATO affairs for 40 years. I’ve never seen NATO quite this united, except maybe for a brief moment after 9/11, when they invoked Article V on our behalf. So Putin really has solidified not only cohesion in NATO, but has justified the fears that drove some of his former republics, like the Baltic States in particular, but also former satellites like Poland and Hungary and so forth into NATO. He’s shown everyone why that was, why they wanted to do that and why, and they must now think that that was a very good idea.
So in a way, this has all been very counterproductive for Putin.
Grid: Some have said, well, this has been successful. And we should do even more. There was a suggestion made that the United States should play a similar game with some of the Russian oligarchs and friends of Putin, and release material and information about them. Do you think there are other utilities for this kind of strategy?
JM: My view is that kind of ad hominem data would not be very effective. I don’t think it would have the effect or the seriousness of purpose that we’ve seen in these releases up to now. So I wouldn’t expect that to happen and I don’t think it would be a great idea.
Grid: You described this as a kind of a sea change in approach. Do you think this might have a long-lasting effect and change the relationship between the intelligence community and the executive branch going forward? Or is the current crisis just so unusual in lending itself to this approach?
JM: There certainly will be pressure to continue this. If the strategy continues to be successful, I think that there will be pressure to continue it, sure. That’s almost inevitable. I don’t think it would be a good idea to continue it forever. But there’s a core effectiveness. There are effects of this that go beyond what we see on the surface. I mean, they must be asking themselves now, what’s going on here? What’s going on, that we’ve not seen this before?
I am reminded of something said by the great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu back in the sixth century B.C. What I remember most vividly is his injunction that the wisest strategist is able to win without fighting. And I think that “win without fighting” is what we’re trying to do here. You know, a sixth-century B.C. strategy, but using 21st-century methods.