It was an attention-grabbing assertion that made headlines around the world: U.S. officials said they had indications suggesting Russia might be preparing to use chemical agents in Ukraine.
President Joe Biden later said it publicly. But three U.S. officials told NBC News this week there is no evidence Russia has brought any chemical weapons near Ukraine. They said the U.S. released the information to deter Russia from using the banned munitions.
It’s one of a string of examples of the Biden administration’s breaking with recent precedent by deploying declassified intelligence as part of an information war against Russia. The administration has done so even when the intelligence wasn’t rock solid, officials said, to keep Russian President Vladimir Putin off balance. Coordinated by the White House National Security Council, the unprecedented intelligence releases have been so frequent and voluminous, officials said, that intelligence agencies had to devote more staff members to work on the declassification process, scrubbing the information so it wouldn’t betray sources and methods.
Observers of all stripes have called it a bold and so far successful strategy — although not one without risks.
“It’s the most amazing display of intelligence as an instrument of state power that I have seen or that I’ve heard of since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said Tim Weiner, the author of a 2006 history of the CIA and 2020’s “The Folly and the Glory,” a look at the U.S.-Russia rivalry over decades. “It has certainly blunted and defused the disinformation weaponry of the Kremlin.”
Four days before the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the U.S. publicized spy plane photos to show the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear missiles not far from Florida’s coast. The Biden administration began releasing reams of intelligence about what it said were Putin’s plans and intentions even before the invasion of Ukraine began.
Just this week, national security adviser Jake Sullivan stood at the White House podium and read out what officials said was more declassified intelligence, asserting that Russia’s pullout from areas around Kyiv wasn’t a retreat but a strategic redeployment that signals a significant assault on eastern and southern Ukraine, one that U.S. officials believe could be a protracted and bloody fight.
The idea is to pre-empt and disrupt the Kremlin’s tactics, complicate its military campaign, “undermine Moscow’s propaganda and prevent Russia from defining how the war is perceived in the world,” said a Western government official familiar with the strategy.
Multiple U.S. officials acknowledged that the U.S. has used information as a weapon even when confidence in the accuracy of the information wasn’t high. Sometimes it has used low-confidence intelligence for deterrent effect, as with chemical agents, and other times, as an official put it, the U.S. is just “trying to get inside Putin’s head.”
Some officials believe, however, that trying to get into Putin’s head is a meaningless exercise, because he will do what he wants regardless.
After this story was published, a U.S. official told NBC News that “the U.S. government’s effort to strategically downgrade intelligence to share with allies and the public is underpinned by a rigorous review process by the National Security Council and the Intelligence Community to validate the quality of the information and protect sources and methods.” The official added that “we only approve the release of intelligence if we are confident those two requirements are met.”
The biggest success of the U.S. information offensive may have been delaying the invasion itself by weeks or months, which officials believe they did with accurate predictions that Russia intended to attack, based on definitive intelligence. By the time Russia moved its troops in, the West presented a unified front.
Before the invasion, the U.S. asserted that Russia intended to stage a false flag attack against members of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population as a justification for war and that the plans included a video featuring fake corpses. The video never materialized; Russia has consistently claimed it was invading to protect ethnic Russians from “Nazis" in Ukraine.
The U.S. accurately predicted that Putin intended to go through with the attack, even as other Western countries, notably France, argued otherwise. The head of France’s military intelligence agency stepped down last week over the wrong call.
A former U.S. official said administration officials believe the strategy delayed Putin’s invasion from the first week of January to after the Olympics and that the delay bought the U.S. valuable time to get allies on the same page in terms of the level of the Russian threat and how to respond.
CIA Director William Burns, a former ambassador to Russia, told lawmakers at a congressional threats hearing last month that “in all the years I spent as a career diplomat, I saw too many instances in which we lost information wars with the Russians.”
Now, he said, “by being careful about this we have stripped away the pretext that Putin, in particular, often uses.”
“That has been a real benefit, I think, to Ukrainians,” he said.
The policy has drawn lavish praise even from some Republicans.
“You were spot on in your intelligence,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., said at the House’s annual worldwide threats hearing last month, addressing Burns and other intelligence agency leaders. “Your decision to declassify, both the form and the fashion in which you did so, saved lives. Sleep well, and thank you for doing that.”
But the strategy has its dangers. One of them, the Western official said, is that getting something clearly wrong would be extremely damaging to U.S. credibility and play into Moscow’s hands.
Disclosure as a deterrent
As the war has proceeded, the administration has used intelligence to warn of possible Russian actions and draw attention to Russian military failings.
At times, the Biden administration has released information in which it has less confidence or about things that are possible rather than truly likely.
Last week, U.S. officials told reporters they had intelligence suggesting Putin is being misled by his own advisers, who are afraid to tell him the truth.
But when Biden was asked about the disclosure later in the day — after it made headlines around the globe — he was less than definitive.
“That’s an open question. There’s a lot of speculation,” Biden told reporters. “But he seems to be — I’m not saying this with a certainty — he seems to be self-isolating.”
The degree to which Putin is isolated or relying on flawed information can’t be verified, said Paul Pillar, a retired career U.S. intelligence officer. “There’s no way you can prove or disprove that stuff,” he said.
Two U.S. officials said the intelligence about whether Putin’s inner circle was lying to him wasn’t conclusive — based more on analysis than hard evidence. Other officials disputed that, saying the intelligence was very reliable and had been vetted at the highest levels.
In another disclosure, U.S. officials said one reason not to provide Ukraine with MiG fighter jets is that intelligence showed Russia would view the move as escalatory.
That was true, but it was also true of Stinger missiles, which the Biden administration did provide, two U.S. officials said, adding that the administration declassified the MiG information to bolster the argument not to provide them to Ukraine.
Likewise, a charge that Russia had turned to China for potential military help lacked hard evidence, a European official and two U.S. officials said.
The U.S. officials said there are no indications China is considering providing weapons to Russia. The Biden administration put that out as a warning to China not to do so, they said.
The European official described the disclosure as “a public game to prevent any military support from China.”
Game or not, U.S. intelligence officials say it has been successful. Intelligence is rarely definitive, and Biden officials have calculated in some cases that it’s better to pre-empt something that might not happen, rather than stay silent and watch it unfold.
“It doesn’t have to be solid intelligence when we talk about it,” a U.S. official said. “It’s more important to get out ahead of them — Putin specifically — before they do something. It’s preventative. We don’t always want to wait until the intelligence is 100 percent certainty that they are going to do something. We want to get out ahead to stop them.”
The official said there was an extensive discussion about whether to reveal that the Russians had a blacklist of Ukrainian enemies whom they intended to arrest and possibly kill once they seized control. Officials weighed the potential harm of divulging the intelligence. “That was a big decision,” the official said.
But the intelligence appears to have been borne out by witness accounts from towns Russian once occupied and has now left, where political assassinations have been documented.
Some U.S. officials have advocated a strategy of leaning further forward in declassifying and releasing intelligence for years, as U.S. adversaries became adept at using modern communications platforms to spread propaganda.
In 2020, nine of 11 U.S. military combatant commanders signed a memo urging the U.S. intelligence community to declassify more information to counter disinformation and propaganda from Moscow and Beijing.
The U.S. can bolster support from allies only by “waging the truth in the public domain against America’s 21st century challengers,” the officers wrote. But efforts to compete in the battle of ideas, they added, are hamstrung by overly stringent secrecy practices.
“We request this help to better enable the US, and by extension its allies and partners, to win without fighting, to fight now in so-called gray zones, and to supply ammunition in the ongoing war of narratives,” the four-star generals wrote to the acting director of national intelligence at the time, Joseph Maguire.
“Unfortunately, we continue to miss opportunities to clarify truth, counter distortions, puncture false narratives, and influence events in time to make a difference,” the generals said.
In the past, the U.S. had sat on its hands as Russia waged information war.
In 2014, days before Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, Russia released a recording of an apparent phone conversation between senior U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland and the ambassador to Ukraine at the time, in which Nuland disparaged the European Union.
The move was part of a wave of disinformation and propaganda from Moscow surrounding the seizure of Crimea. But the Obama administration didn’t react.
That’s because the U.S. had opted out of the great power propaganda wars after the 9/11 attacks, Weiner said.
“So what was the United States’ response to all of this?” Weiner asked. “Crickets, nothing, zip. They had no response.”
The Biden strategy has been different.
Pillar said the Biden administration took a significant risk in predicting Russia would invade Ukraine, a bold move that was vindicated by Putin’s actions.
“That suggests that there are some pretty strong bases for this information,” Pillar said. “Not only did it turn out to be correct ... but evidently it had been presented to the president with enough confidence that he felt confident going out on the limb as far as he did.”
Said Pillar, “Boy, if there wasn’t an invasion, this would have a huge ‘cry wolf’ effect and make our president look pretty bad.”