New Delhi: Government spies should be neither seen nor heard — until very recently, this was the general protocol for international intelligence agencies. But six months into the Russia-Ukraine war, this is clearly no longer the case.
Even as a tragedy of death and destruction continues to unfold on the ground in Ukraine, information warfare has been raging in cyberspace between Russia and the West. It is within this battle to control discourse and narrative that the clandestine nature of global espionage has changed. Spies — usually restricted to the shadows — have come to the centre with public disclosure of information.
Daily intelligence briefings during the initial days of the war, battlefield updates, and detailed threads on Twitter have all been released by American and British agencies, where these would once be restricted to ‘top secret’ dossiers only to be shared within and between governments, above certain levels of security clearances.
Late last month, for instance, Richard Moore, the chief of Britain’s intelligence agency MI6, tweeted that Russia was “running out of steam” in Ukraine. Similarly, William Burns, director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also publicly provided estimates on Russian casualties from the war at around 15,000 dead as of July.
Running out of steam… https://t.co/bExZXZ3l3z
— Richard Moore (@ChiefMI6) July 30, 2022
“This process of sharing intelligence in the open is a new phenomenon in global espionage,” a former official with India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) told ThePrint, adding that he expected that the trend would “trickle down” to other countries, including India, too.
Yashovardhan Azad, a former special director at India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) said that while the war in Ukraine has brought a “new and fresh approach to intelligence”, there was a need to exercise caution.
“The covert, clandestine, and secret nature of global intelligence has been transformed. This is yielding both destructive and constructive results, depending on how you perceive it,” he said.
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Intelligence as ‘influence’
The regular publishing of usually confidential battlefield updates, security and armament assessments, and estimates of Russian casualties by the West are clear markers of putting intelligence in the public domain to control the narrative around the war, Azad said.
But, according to some scholars, there is even more to it.
The UK and US governments have been using “intelligence as influence” not only to build public support, but also to “sway or persuade the decision-making, actions, or even world-view” of state and non-state partners and proxies, wrote researchers Huw Dylan and Thomas Maguire in a paper published this month in Survival, the bi-monthly journal of the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
Another motive, they wrote, was to use intelligence to build awareness and “enhance the resilience” of audiences in the face of developing and “often clandestine” threats.
Speaking to ThePrint on condition of anonymity, a former senior Indian diplomat, who served in the region, said there were three distinct goals in the dissemination of intelligence information to the public.
“During the initial days of the war, the flurry of information in the public domain from Western intelligence agencies could be attributed to three factors — the first to show that the war wasn’t a walkover for Russia. Second, to highlight the discrepancy in the Russian narrative to its people. And third, to show that Ukraine was stoically protecting its sovereignty.”
The former diplomat, however, also said that the objective of this dissemination of intelligence was not limited to merely aiding Ukraine, but also to propagate the West’s own agenda, which some commentators have speculated includes weakening Putin’s monopoly in Moscow.
A warning system
Another use of intelligence has been to send “strategic warnings”, which the public were made privy to in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February this year.
In December 2021, for example, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken warned Russia of “severe costs” if it invaded Ukraine. These comments came after media houses like The Washington Post ran stories, based on intelligence inputs, that Russia had mobilised troops near the border with Ukraine.
This new trend in intelligence gave Ukraine time to ensure commitments from allies to help defend the country. It also ensured a swift flow of arms and ammunition to the fight. Lastly, it gave a clear picture to Ukraine and the West of the scale of the fight.
However, the inputs neither deterred Putin nor did they result in a quick solution. Therefore, in the long term, publishing intelligence in the open source to deter conflict should not be looked at as an effective strategy by governments, scholars argue.
“The focus now must be on using this intelligence to find a way to peace,” added the former Indian diplomat.
Benefits and risks of the intelligence ‘evolution’
Intelligence has been used to build a public narrative to support state action in the past, like the Weapon of Mass Destruction theory in Iraq to support the 2003 invasion, or America’s public dissemination of intelligence during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
However, the scale, method, and implication of intelligence dissemination during the Ukraine war has been “evolutionary” and a greater success than in the past. Seeing the successful use of this template of intelligence to undermine Russia’s narrative in the build-up to the war, this form of espionage may serve future crises too, scholars Dylan and Maguire explain.
In an analysis published in the American national security platform War on the Rocks, security scholars argued that years of building public access and transparency into intelligence in the West, along with enhanced availability of open-source intelligence technology — through satellites and imagery — have made it possible for politicians, diplomats, and the media to use intelligence information streams in the public discourse surrounding the war.
While there are risks involved in releasing sensitive information to external audiences, like tipping off adversaries and galvanising them to cover up their activities better, many experts believe the benefits outweigh risks.
In a speech on global security earlier this year, Jeremy Fleming, the chief of Britain’s electronic intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) acknowledged that the “pace and scale” at which secret intelligence is being released is “unprecedented”, but that he welcomed it since “intelligence is only worth collecting if we use it”.
Former CIA directors Leon Panetta, Michael Hayden, and John Brennan also advocate this form of “open intelligence”.
The former RAW official said that the key would be to maintain a fine balance.
“The clandestine nature of intelligence will not disappear. It will still be an essential fulcrum of espionage. However, this new form of intelligence in public will trickle into the rest of the world,” he said.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
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