Public Use of Intelligence in Strategic Perspective

In a new article, Ofek Riemer and Daniel Sobelman study how the public use of intelligence increasingly serves strategic purposes. Disclosing intelligence poses a number of risks, which makes this trend all the more remarkable.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has been the systematic intelligence revelations of otherwise highly classified intelligence regarding Moscow’s military plans. Both in the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in the months that followed, Western intelligence revelations have been unusual in their frequency, quantity and quality.

Thus, nearly two decades after the historic intelligence debacle in Iraq, the United States and Britain have been accurate in their intelligence assessments and data regarding Russia’s designs for Ukraine. The two countries have been remarkably open and specific in their intelligence revelations. These recent intelligence revelations received considerable international attention, in large part because unlike in Iraq, they actually proved to be accurate. While the scope and granularity of these intelligence revelations may have been unprecedented, the publicization of classified intelligence data is appears to be increasingly prevalent in international affairs.

This fact notwithstanding, the authorized disclosure of solid intelligence for strategic ends—as opposed to unauthorized leaks, the use of dubious intelligence, or intelligence revelation in the service of domestic-political purposes—remains understudied. The stream of Western intelligence exposures regarding Russia’s war in Ukraine is an opportunity to cast light on the “legitimate” employment of genuine and solid intelligence as a strategic instrument in international relations. When governments reveal, or threaten to reveal, intelligence in a purposeful effort to change the strategic calculations of other actors and make them act contrary to their original preferences, they engage in a strategy that we define and conceptualize as “coercive disclosure.”

The revelation of intelligence is counter-intuitive and often resented by intelligence practitioners. After all, intelligence is intuitively perceived as an asset that must be carefully guarded to provide its possessor with a comparative advantage if conflict breaks out. To make matters worse, intelligence disclosure runs the risk of compromising one’s resources and methods, potentially placing it at a disadvantage if conflict indeed breaks out. Yet intelligence disclosure is prevalent in international politics. For instance, for over a decade now, Israel has been almost systematically revealing top secret intelligence information about Hezbollah’s deployment in Lebanon. This would have been unthinkable in the past, but in today’s hyper-mediatized environment, the rules of the game seem to have changed.

The strategic use of intelligence ultimately represents actors’ perennial quest for leverage in international politics. In this respect, intelligence is essentially analogous to more traditional resources and assets that states employ to impact the strategic calculations of other actors. In other words, similar to the way in which a state can be vulnerable to another actor’s superior military or economic prowess, one can find itself vulnerable to another actor’s superior intelligence capabilities and penetration, and hence to strategic manipulation.

In this regard, it bears remembering that all actors have secrets: international politics entail compromises between one’s public image, commitments, and stated ideology, on the one hand, and one’s political interests and constraints, on the other hand. This basic feature of international politics renders actors vulnerable to manipulation. On top of that, some actors secretly engage in particularly egregious acts whose revelation could land them in serious trouble. In such cases, governments that have gained unique visibility into their opponents’ secrets can harness their intelligence in the service of influence and coercion.

Flowing from this, we argue that states can, and do, employ genuinely credible intelligence—as opposed to distorted, dubious, and erroneous intelligence—as a coercive weapon. That is, states employ their intelligence and visibility into others’ secrets in a deliberate effort to reshape their strategic calculations and constraints, without having to resort to armed force. Additionally, intelligence disclosure can be used to mobilize domestic and international audiences and make others align with a certain narrative and alter their policies accordingly. Put differently, the public revelation of intelligence could result in third-party pressure on the target of coercion.

Thus, intelligence disclosures carry the potential of preventing opponents from realizing strategic and operational goals, by disrupting their operations and by otherwise forcing them to divert resources and adjust to the fact that their secrets had been openly exposed. It can also bring indirect pressure on targets by mobilizing domestic constituencies, and it could enable the discloser to shape a coherent narrative and frame its opponents’ behavior in a certain manner.

To demonstrate the workings of coercive disclosure we investigated two recent cases in which governments purposefully leveraged solid intelligence in order to coerce opponents into shifting their policies. The first case was Saudi Arabia’s gruesome assassination of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, in 2018, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi’s assassination made international headlines not because a journalist had been murdered in a premeditated fashion, but because the Turkish authorities possessed incriminating graphic intelligence, which, among other things, linked the Saudi Royal Court to the assassination. Such undeniable intelligence included visual evidence and audio recording of the preparations and actual implementation of the killing.

Absent such intelligence, Riyadh would have likely adhered to its initial claim that Khashoggi had left the consulate building unharmed—a claim that U.S. President Donald Trump seemed eager to accept. Leveraging its evidence, Ankara gradually coerced Saudi Arabia and President Trump to acknowledge (most of) the truth. By constantly signaling that it held further intelligence in reserve, Ankara gradually and repeatedly forced Riyadh to abandon its initial denials. Rather than simply revealing its intelligence, it turned it into coercive leverage, thereby bringing pressure on Saudi Arabia directly, but also indirectly through the United States, whose president sought to bring the affair to a quick closure.

The second episode involving coercive disclosure pertains to Israel’s still-ongoing efforts, which began in 2017, to force Hezbollah to abandon its efforts to manufacture precision-guided missiles in Lebanon. To bring international, but especially domestic pressure on Hezbollah, Israel repeatedly resorted to the publicization of high-resolution intelligence on the deployment of Hezbollah’s “precision project.” Israel used high-profile international forums, such as the United Nations General Assembly, to disclose the whereabouts of secret workshops and facilities, in an effort to bring third-party pressure on the group and disrupt its operations.

Ofek Riemer and Daniel Sobelman are the authors of “Coercive disclosure: The weaponization of public intelligence revelation in international relations”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

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