Written by Marc Pomerleau
Although the US government has criticized its approach to Russia’s information operations in recent years, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency believes that current efforts to combat the Kremlin’s false flags and disinformation surrounding its invasion of Ukraine have been successful.
“I think the work we’ve done – and it’s not without risk as an intelligence community – to declassify the information has been very effective,” CIA chief William Burns told the commission. Permanent House Intelligence during a hearing on Tuesday.
In the run-up to the invasion, Moscow has sought to perpetrate false flags and disinformation campaigns as a pretext for its attack. The US government and its allies and partners quickly declassified multiple pieces of intelligence to expose this activity and thwart any Russian attempts to justify the Kremlin’s actions.
In recent years, as foreign information operations have become more prominent and efforts to combat them effectively have proven difficult, the U.S. military and intelligence community (IC) have focused on exposing them. The agencies declassified intelligence to disclose Russian troop movements and actions ahead of the assault on Ukraine. These revelations continued even after the invasion.
To a large extent, this is uncharted territory for the intelligence community, as agencies generally do not want to risk exposing how they obtain information. Protecting sources and methods is a top priority.
However, exposing adversaries’ activities can take their breath away and allow others to take defensive action.
“I sat for many years on the policy-making side and watched us lose information wars. In this case, I think that by paying attention to this, we have removed the pretense that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, in particular, often uses it,” Burns said. “It was a real advantage, I think, for the Ukrainians. It has been a real investment in the kind of actions that our allies have taken.
This tactic of exposing adversaries’ activities, capabilities, and tools has been adopted by the US military in recent years.
Some examples include exposure of Russian behavior in space; highlighting the activities of the Wagner Group – a Russian security company – acting on behalf of the Russian government in Libya; and the disclosure of malware samples found during US Cyber Command operations.
“Disclosure is costly because it removes the adversary’s weapons from the ‘battlefield’ and forces them to expend resources to create new weapons,” said Colonel Brian Russell, commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group. “Disclosure forces the adversary to ask: ‘How were these capabilities discovered?’ This causes them to investigate the cause of the disclosure, forcing them to spend time on something other than attacking us. If I can plant a seed of doubt [by messaging] that the disclosure could have been caused by someone working on the inside causes them to question the very nature of the system, perhaps devoting more time and resources to fixing the system.