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CIA director defends declassifying intel to expose Russia’s actions in Ukraine

The U.S. released intelligence this week alleging Russia had turned to North Korea to buy artillery rounds and was forcibly deporting Ukrainians to Russia.
Image: Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on March 10, 2022 in Washington, DC.
CIA Director William Burns testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington on March 10.Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images file

CIA Director William Burns said Thursday that the Biden administration’s decision to declassify some intelligence to expose Russia’s actions and plans in Ukraine has proven “effective.”

Burns defended the administration’s unprecedented strategy of releasing intelligence reports on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying it has been carried out in a carefully calibrated way designed to protect intelligence sources.

Decisions to declassify intelligence are “always very complicated ones,” Burns said at the Billington Cybersecurity annual summit in Washington, D.C.

“But I think when President Biden has decided very carefully and very selectively to, you know, make public some of our secrets, it’s played a very effective role over the course of the last six months,” Burns said.

The CIA director said he expected the practice to continue “if we make it the exception, not the rule because the surest way, I’ve certainly found in a year and a half now as director of CIA, to lose access to good intelligence is to be reckless about how you handle it.”

Burns added that U.S. intelligence will continue to play a role in “ensuring that Putin fails in Ukraine.”

Burns did not mention the current legal and political battle over an FBI search that found classified and sensitive government documents at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida.

The director’s comments came the same week that the Biden administration shared intelligence alleging Russia had turned to North Korea to buy millions of artillery rounds and that Moscow had orchestrated the forcible deportation of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia.

The accounts were the latest in a series of publicly released intelligence reports that the White House has released during the course of the six-month-old war in Ukraine, starting with U.S. warnings that Russia planned to invade its neighbor.

The administration often has used the declassified intelligence to warn of possible Russian actions and draw attention to Russian military failings.

The strategy has won praise from both sides of the aisle in Congress. At a congressional hearing earlier this year, Burns, a former ambassador to Russia, told lawmakers 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, Burns 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.

At the cybersecurity event Thursday, Burns said the U.S. intelligence agencies had a clear picture of Russia’s invasion planning last fall, citing what he called Putin’s “sense of destiny and his appetite for risk.”

“And nowhere was that sense of destiny or that risk appetite greater than on his fixation with controlling Ukraine,” Burns said.

The CIA director, a career diplomat who rose to senior positions in previous administrations, said Putin misjudged Ukraine, wrongly assumed Washington would lose interest in Ukraine and was “profoundly wrong in his assumptions.”