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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


In the context of the war in Ukraine, I’ve found myself thinking frequently about the relationship between the intelligence community and politicians/policymakers. There have been repeated instances where the media reports ‘US intelligence’ on incidents connected to the war and which might not be what western politicians wish to hear.

Pipelines and stovepipes

Three months ago, I wrote about the Nord Stream pipeline explosions and the slanging match of claim and counterclaim that incident generated. Since writing that post, there have been repeated stories in the media about those explosions – a new investigation showing Russian ships in the vicinity, the implication being that they were mining the pipelines, then information hinting at Ukrainian involvement, then a resurfacing of the Seymour Hersch line (Hersch is an American journalist who made claims, popularly debunked, of American responsibility in the sabotage).

It was the Nord Stream blasts that started me thinking a lot more about the uses of intelligence by politicians and its media coverage during the war. There is no public consensus about who was responsible, though forgive my hankering suspicion that someone is trying to keep something hushed up. The perpetrators, presumably, but perhaps not only. The latest media claims say that the Biden administration was given European ‘intelligence’ that the Ukrainian military was plotting to target the pipelines. I don't think the White House responded to the report.

Some of the theories put forward are the work of investigative journalists, but the intelligence community – military and civilian intelligence – will have been providing its own analyses to governments. These agencies are often in competition with one another. In principle, interagency cooperation in the US has come a long way since the cold war, but the nature of the intelligence agencies’ work, the need to keep secrets, coupled with turf wars (why does the FBI have a theory about the origins of Covid-19 in China, since surely its domain is domestic matters?)... These things mean the intelligence agencies may still each be ‘stove-piping’ their own findings to the White House. (But I don’t know how they actually work; I’m just recording a stray thought so that I don’t lose it.)

On occasion, the US shares the findings of its intelligence agencies and information from its military. The Pentagon declassified military footage of a drone collision in the Black Sea back in March, for example, and last week the US released intelligence about the deepening military relationship between Russia and Iran, with the latter supplying drones for use over the battlefield in Ukraine.

And there was a suggestion that some intelligence may be declassified concerning the blowing up of the Kakhovka dam last week. (The US initially only said it was ‘leaning towards’ attributing the explosions to Russian actions.) There are many reasons not to declassify intelligence, including not wanting to disclose one’s intelligence collection capabilities to an adversary, but any evidence the US is able to release concerning Russia’s responsibility for the destruction of the dam probably counts as an easy win.

The dam

It’s an easy win because most of us think it is reasonable and right to assume that Russia blew up the dam. The dam was under Russia’s control and one can think of clear motivations for the Russian military to break the dam, primarily so as to interfere with Ukrainian offensive plans.

By contrast, one is hard pressed to think of a motive on the Ukrainian side. As anyone reading the news over the past week will realise, the damage is extensive and multifaceted. There is immense environmental damage, with agricultural land devastated for years, and thousands of Ukrainians have lost their homes. Several people are known to have drowned, and the number will probably rise.

Pro-Russian commentators are correct in noting that there is some damage to Russian interests, too. The flooding of trenches that Russian soldiers have spent recent months digging suggests desperation, or perhaps that the damage caused was far greater than intended. Moreover, it seems the destruction of the dam will complicate water supplies to the annexed Crimean peninsula. But the damage to Russian interests is marginal compared to the damage caused to Ukraine.

Furthermore, the ‘forensic’ evidence is quite compelling. I cannot claim anything beyond a layman’s knowledge when it comes to interpreting a seismograph, beyond grasping that higher spikes on the chart represent greater movement in the earth, but it is said that Norwegian seismic data establishes that the ground shook consistent with an explosion at the time of the dam bursting. That information apparently rules out an unprovoked structural failure. It is nevertheless entirely right to have initially wondered about a structural failure – my knowledge of engineering is next to naught and I don’t like the tendency to rush to judgment so prevalent on social media.

So any intelligence declassified relating to the dam's destruction, whether intercepted conversations or satellite imagery, could be simply providing a ‘smoking gun’ that confirms what everyone already ‘knows’. Information consistent with what is already believed only serves to make everything more compelling. So as the evidence mounts up (e.g. evidence that, apparently, Russia placed mines on the dam last October), any declassified intel will unlikely be subjected to much public scrutiny. It will bolster, too, the image of the intelligence agencies and western leaders for their backing of Ukraine.

The damning

But there are less convenient truths. And here, I return to the thing that has been on my mind. The relationship between the intelligence community and western politicians supporting Ukraine fight back the Russian invasion. Politicians and policymakers may be being told things they don’t want to hear.

The drone strikes inside Russia throughout the war, and the cross-border incursions in the Belogorod region over recent weeks, are almost certainly sponsored (or otherwise supported) by Ukraine’s military. Western intelligence agencies will know that, assuming it is true, and will presumably be telling the politicians.

The politicians don’t wish to hear this because they have insisted in public that they are supplying weapons to Ukraine solely for use on Ukrainian territory. Even if the weapons used to strike inside Russia have not been supplied by NATO member states, it will still inevitably cause some discomfort among western policymakers that Ukraine is carrying out cross-border attacks. There will be nervousness that these attacks will spark a larger confrontation in which NATO members will be directly involved. Even though, as I said previously, no one will have any sympathy for Russia being targeted and there will, indeed, be widespread tacit support for Ukraine which many think is fighting under unfair constraints.

This brings us to the nexus on which the intelligence-policymaker axis rests. At the end of the day, the agencies producing intelligence have a customer who has powers over them; it decides their budgets and oversees their activities. At their worst, the intelligence community produces ‘intelligence’ that meets policy needs: think of the role of the Office for Special Plans (OSP) and the debacle of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. The OSP’s job was to make the case for the impending war, and its existence as a department depended on doing so. It was hardly surprising that it found ‘evidence’ to suit policymakers’ requirements.

And when the politicians don’t like what they are hearing, it is quite likely that much sound intelligence (and the truth) will be swept under the carpet. And given the crowded marketplace of agencies and firms offering ‘intelligence analysis’ – I’m adding in, here, the private intelligence firms that increasingly work for government clients – the quality of intelligence only suffers.

This is where any 'stove-piping' of conflicting findings within the intelligence community plays into the the policymaker's hands.

Information overload and its consequences

Good intelligence is difficult to discern amidst the rapid flow of memos and reports no doubt crossing the typical policymaker's inbox. No one could process the volume of information being supplied and some policymakers will inevitably turn to whomever is supplying the information they want to hear. And since intelligence is seldom 'certain', politicians can abuse the intelligence analyst's caution by turning the probable into the 'not certain' and the improbable into 'a possibility'.

Of course, sometimes intelligence leaks out regardless, untouched by the politicians' PR spin. Even the most secret communities are never watertight. In the end that will only bring finger pointing, too, because amidst the information on the war in 'our' (as opposed to Russia's) political discourse there will be some dud material. Politicians will blame others for any intelligence that proves wrong, however useful they may have found it at the time.

We should all be cautious when politicians cite bad intelligence. In a book chapter, scholar Mark Lowenthal records a maxim among US intelligence staff: 'There are only policy successes and intelligence failures. Never the opposite.' That is both true and untrue at the same time.

Image credit: Taken by User:Uberpenguin with the assistance of Matt Gibbs (matt[AT]alwayssleeping{dot}com), CC BY-SA 2.5 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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