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Behind unusual U.S. strategy to release intelligence on Russian moves

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And today is February 16, the day that U.S. officials had been warning a Russian invasion of Ukraine might begin. Well, happily, it is now dark in Ukraine, and there's been no such thing. In fact, Russia claims it's withdrawing some troops from the border. The U.S. and NATO say they cannot verify that claim. And there's nothing to rule out Russia attacking on another day. But this dangling of a specific date, it is raising eyebrows because it is part of an extraordinary series of disclosures making public what U.S. intelligence believes Vladimir Putin might do next.

Douglas London is a former senior CIA operations officer, and he writes about these disclosures in a just published piece in Foreign Affairs. It is headlined "To Reveal, Or Not To Reveal." Doug London, welcome.

DOUGLAS LONDON: Thanks for having me on the program.

KELLY: How unusual is it for this much intelligence to be made public?

LONDON: It's fair to say it's unprecedented. We've seen releases of finished intelligence that took months and months to study, review and sterilize, like on Jamal Khashoggi and Russian meddling. And there is one historic precedent in December 1980, when the U.S. released intelligence about the Soviet Union's plans to invade Poland. But we've not seen this volume and the speed at which it's been exposed.

KELLY: Yeah. This is, like, presumably just collected, just declassified, raw intel.

LONDON: Absolutely. In fact, that's where the most sensitivity lies, in the raw intelligence capabilities you have, whether it's humans or our technical collection and such. So it's rather daring.

KELLY: Let's talk through the pros and cons of this strategy. The pros first, and I'll just catalogue a few of them. Alongside this date, the specifically naming today as the day an invasion might start, the Biden administration has exposed an alleged Russian plot involving a video of a faked atrocity; also revealed intelligence indicating Russia was planning false flag attacks; also made public intelligence about saboteurs into eastern Ukraine. I mean, the list goes on.

Make the case. What's the argument for revealing not just to the American public but also to the Kremlin, which is surely listening, so much of what the U.S. says it knows?

LONDON: Well, the value of intelligence is if you use it. And generally, it's to inform decision-making. But the United States finds itself in particular circumstances with Russia, where they've had the advantage over the last several years on framing the narrative and really a hybrid form of strategic competition that they have really achieved. So using intelligence as a means to change and gain the advantage on the narrative is clearly an advantage and a means to use, so long as it's used judiciously.

KELLY: Are you basically making the case that if your adversary, in this case Russia, is putting lies and disinformation out there, the best way to fight that is with good information, making public what you think you know?

LONDON: Well, it's an asymmetrical battle. And you have the Russian president, who's cast himself, you know, fighting bears shirtless on horseback, an image that he wants to have of strength, of omnipotence and omniscience. And the exposure of weaknesses and frailty within his command as we've done, with the consequences of loss and with perhaps overextending himself, can kind of cast him a bit like Prince Humperdinck from "The Princess Bride."

KELLY: (Laughter) You might need to refresh people's memory on what happened there.

LONDON: (Laughter) Well, obviously Prince Humperdinck in the story is this all-powerful sovereign. He's trying to fake a war or actually cause a war with his neighbor in order to seize greater power and advance greater control. But it's based on a series of illusions and there's a great weakness that befalls the truth.

KELLY: Is there also a practical, very short-term potential benefit of saying, hey, Russia, we think you're about to do this, we're going to let everybody know we think you're about to do this to make it a little harder for you to do it in the effort to deter you?

LONDON: Well, certainly Putin can't be shamed. And there's no opportunity of surprise when you've massed 150,000 troops. It's not going to be a sneak attack. So mostly in terms of, are we calling a bluff because we really don't believe he's going to do it or trying to make it seem he's actually too weak and he's going to face consequences that outstretched what he's going to gain in all this?

KELLY: What about the risks?

LONDON: The risks are significant. You don't compromise potential sources without due consideration. First of all, human sources are people to whom we're obligated for their protection, and you don't get the kind of insights from technical collection that you do from a person. Imagine someone who's in Putin's inner circle or the general command of the Russian army. We can see things through satellites. We can hear things through intercepts. But having agents is the most dear context to really informing what is Putin going to do.

And the technical capabilities themselves, I know folks will dismiss it and say, oh, the Russians know we're listening. Well, if they knew we were listening to everything that we're exposing, they would certainly be protecting those communications in a more secure way. So you're giving the rival an opportunity to identify where they might have weaknesses or compromises, strengthen their defenses and put your agents and collection capabilities at risk, which might provide a short-term gain right now in the Ukraine, but it might blind us in the future to what the Russians are planning there and elsewhere.

KELLY: Are you persuaded, as a longtime CIA officer, that Russia is pulling back? Russia's Defense Ministry has published video, it says, that video shows military vehicles leaving Crimea. How persuasive should we find that?

LONDON: I believe that Putin - and you could change day to day - does not really want to suffer the consequences of invasion, which will pretty much get him all the things he's claiming to be potentially launching an offensive over. But you're leaving him less face-saving outs, less exit ramps to go. Because if it's all about his credibility and saving face and looking strong, he needs a way where we don't make him look stronger but a way that at least he feels he could walk away without losing the kind of face that might prompt him to take something more of an offensive action.

KELLY: Sounds like neither the spies nor the diplomats will be short of work on this front for some time to come.

LONDON: Well, there is job security in today's world.

KELLY: Doug London - he served in the CIA's clandestine service for 34 years, and he is author of "The Recruiter: Spying And The Lost Art Of American Intelligence." Thank you.

LONDON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.