Image credit: Lisa Ferdinando/Department of Defense
March 07, 2023
Intelligence Agencies as Truth-Telling Internet Informers?
This commentary piece is part of CNAS' The Pitch: A Competition of New Ideas. The author, William Coffin, won the Safeguarding Against Threats to Democracy heat at the 2022 competition. The Pitch is CNAS’ annual premier event to elevate emerging and diverse voices in national security. Selected applicants will make their pitch for innovative policy ideas to meet new challenges in U.S. national security policy in front of a distinguished panel of judges.
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, just under half of Americans often or sometimes get their news from social media.1 Americans’ reliance on Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram for information provides U.S. adversaries an opportunity to employ disinformation effectively. U.S. adversaries can manipulate the American people and exploit their habits against American interests. Strategic competitors and adversaries affected elections using social media during the 2016 U.S. election, attempted to influence the 2018 and 2020 elections, spread inaccurate information during the pandemic, and impacted the public using false and misleading data that countered official U.S. government messaging.2 Disinformation has become such a threat to the country that President Joe Biden’s administration has identified disinformation as a national security priority in the 2022 National Security Strategy.3 According to a RAND report, this threat will continue to evolve, and the United States needs to look at ways to counter it now.4 The United States should use the intelligence community (IC) to inform the public to combat adversary disinformation.
In recent months, the crisis in Ukraine has shown that the IC can play a crucial part in the fight against adversary disinformation. The IC is combating Russian disinformation by declassifying intelligence at the press podium and on social media for the public to confront these lies and preempt these threats in the information domain. The level of intelligence being released is a major cultural shift, as this information has typically been restricted, sparsely released, and only declassified after years have passed. The United States, through the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), must continue to embrace this cultural shift of rapidly declassifying intelligence to inform the public of malicious intentions by expanding efforts to regularly push declassified intelligence into the information domain and adapt techniques that allies, like the United Kingdom on Twitter, effectively employ.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the United States has worked to present unclassified and declassified intelligence through National Security Council and Pentagon officials, illuminating Russia’s actions under Russia’s “Special Military Operation.” The United States’ IC has devoted staff to support this effort, too, enabling senior administration officials like National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to point out Iran’s effort to sell drones to Russia or highlight Russia’s true intentions for withdrawing from Kyiv and shifting forces to southern Ukraine.5
These official statements, supported by declassified intelligence, allow the United States to preempt Russia’s attempts to disseminate disinformation to global audiences.
The United States must continue to embrace this cultural shift of rapidly declassifying intelligence to inform the public of malicious intentions by expanding efforts to regularly push declassified intelligence into the information domain.
Senior leader emphasis on rapid declassification is necessary to shift IC culture and press for the rapid declassification of intelligence for use in the information domain against competitors.6 This emphasis can start with agency leadership and the ODNI. The ODNI has an office charged with ensuring transparency in the IC’s work; however, this effort is not focused on combating disinformation.7 The IC can help drive cultural change by establishing an office in the ODNI to orchestrate the rapid declassification of intelligence across the community. This office would allow the ODNI to act as a coordinating authority and leader to operationalize this declassified intelligence for policymakers and warfighters regularly. Decision-makers from every agency in the IC with the power to declassify intelligence would make up this office. The office would also include senior intelligence analysts with the skills to evaluate intelligence risk, alongside public affairs professionals from across the government to provide insight into the public’s need to know. This office would propose information and intelligence to be declassified based on objectives laid out in the National Security, Defense, and Intelligence Strategies. This mechanism would allow intelligence to be operationalized in the information domain to combat disinformation. After the office declassified intelligence that fits these requirements, the public affairs professionals would act as the conduit to the public to ensure the widest dissemination. Ideally, this would lead to a regular product like that produced by the British government and disseminated via the Ministry of Defence’s Twitter account throughout the Ukraine crisis.
This British effort is an effective countermeasure against disinformation and serves as a regular battlefield update to the public using the Ministry of Defence’s Twitter handle. The United Kingdom’s daily intelligence updates on Twitter, which include commercial imagery and battlefield updates with analysis, make it harder for Russia to fill the information domain with misinformation or disinformation.8
These daily intelligence products treat the Ministry of Defence’s Twitter subscribers as crucial intelligence consumers. Just as intelligence can inform a commander’s decision-making on a battlefield, intelligence agencies can notify both adversarial and allied public audiences of the actual intentions of the Russian and Chinese governments, shaping the narrative around the truth rather than adversary propaganda. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the United States has invigorated this effort to present declassified intelligence at the Pentagon podium, illuminating Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
The IC can help drive cultural change by establishing an office in the ODNI to orchestrate the rapid declassification of intelligence across the community.
American IC professionals evaluate the intelligence deemed for declassification, and the process includes identifying risks associated with releasing unclassified or declassified products to the public. Because releasing intelligence entails risk, this proposed office would coordinate releasing sensitive and protected information into the public domain and the broader internet. Declassifying intelligence could provide the adversary insight into IC-collected intelligence, possibly allowing them an opportunity to harden against U.S. collection.9 Declassified intelligence could also impact future operations and obstruct the IC’s understanding of competitors and their activities. The envisioned office would be aware of the risks associated with the declassification decision and mitigate these risks with the assistance from representatives of all IC entities and relevant stakeholders. IC-wide representation also allows different intelligence disciplines to inform the process, which is crucial for sourcing and understanding risk.
The United States needs to recognize that the risk of inaction on adversary disinformation is far greater than the risk of action. Failing to respond will leave adversaries ample space to maneuver in the information domain, allowing Russia and China to continue to flood social media with nefarious messaging.
The practice of declassifying intelligence is not new, but the problem with the declassification process is that it is too slow to be proactive about disinformation and must too frequently react to it. The proposed ODNI office and associated declassification process would offer a proactive approach and ensure that the United States is enhancing its defenses to deter adversaries from these disinformation tactics and achieve information dominance. The declassification of information for operationally relevant reasons—like informing the public to combat disinformation through social media—has been a proven tactic during this Ukrainian crisis. The IC should capitalize on these successes and expand these efforts to operationalize declassified intelligence. Protecting secrets is an important business, but there needs to be a cultural shift in the IC to embrace operational speed and accept more risk.
About the Author
William Coffin is a senior policy and plans analyst in the Department of Defense and a graduate student at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He is a former United States Army intelligence officer and joint intelligence planner, has worked in the intelligence community, and has served in Europe and Afghanistan. These views are his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense.
Thank you to the friends and colleagues who helped me develop my idea throughout the last year. Thanks to my fellow Pitchers for the encouragement. I am very grateful to the CNAS Pitch Team for their support throughout this process. Thanks to Carrie Cordero for her insightful comments, and thanks to CNAS for providing young national security professionals with a platform to share their ideas.
About the Pitch
CNAS began its annual premier event, The Pitch: A Competition of New Ideas, in 2020 to elevate emerging and diverse voices in national security. Students and early career professionals from across a variety of sectors submit innovative policy ideas to meet new challenges in U.S. national security policy. Selected applicants pitch their ideas in front of a distinguished panel of judges and live audience. Over the course of two rounds, judges and the audience select heat winners, the people’s choice winner, and best in show. Competitors will also have their ideas featured in official CNAS products and social media.
- Mason Walker and Katerina Eva Matsa, “News Consumption Across Social Media in 2021,” Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, September 20, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/2021/09/20/news-consumption-across-social-media-in-2021/. ↩
- Kate Starbird, Emma S. Spiro, and Kolina Koltai, “Misinformation, Crisis, and Public Health—Reviewing the Literature,” MediaWell, June 25, 2020, https://mediawell.ssrc.org/research-reviews/misinformation-crisis-and-public-health/; Ken Dilanian, et al., “Bold, Effective and Risky: The New Strategy the U.S. Is Using in the Info War Against Russia,” NBC News, April 6, 2022, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/us-using-declassified-intel-fight-info-war-russia-even-intel-isnt-rock-rcna23014; and Terry L. Thompson, “No Silver Bullet: Fighting Russian Disinformation Requires Multiple Actions,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 21 no. 1 (2020): 182–94, https://doi.org/10.1353/gia.2020.0033. ↩
- The White House, National Security Strategy, October 12, 2022, 31, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Biden-Harris-Administrations-National-Security-Strategy-10.2022.pdf. ↩
- Elina Treyger, Joe Cheravitch, and Raphael S. Cohen, Russian Disinformation Efforts on Social Media (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2022), https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR4373z2.html; “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” The White House, press release, March 3, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/03/03/interim-national-security-strategic-guidance/. ↩
- Dilanian et al., “Bold, Effective and Risky.” ↩
- Eric Schmitt, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, and John Ismay, “As Russia Runs Low on Drones, Iran Plans to Step In, U.S. Officials Say,” The New York Times, July 17, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/17/us/politics/drones-ukraine-russia-iran.html. ↩
- “Principles of Intelligence Transparency for the Intelligence Community,” The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/how-we-work/transparency. ↩
- Karla Adam, “How U.K. Intelligence Came to Tweet the Lowdown on the War in Ukraine,” The Washington Post, April 22, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/04/22/how-uk-intelligence-came-tweet-lowdown-war-ukraine/. ↩
- Joshua Rovner, “Intelligence and War: Does Secrecy Still Matter?” War on the Rocks, May 23, 2022, https://warontherocks.com/2022/05/intelligence-and-war-does-secrecy-still-matter/. ↩