The British intelligence community has been widely praised for releasing classified intelligence on the war in Ukraine. This new role has been effective in countering Russian propaganda and rallying support amongst allies, and is something we can expect to see more of in the future.
Stepping out of the shadows
The entrenched culture of secrecy surrounding the UK’s intelligence community appears to have been broken by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. As Russian troops amassed around Ukraine’s borders, UK and USA intelligence agencies took the unprecedented step of releasing classified intelligence detailing Russia’s invasion plans, false flag operations, and assassination plots.
Declassifying secret intelligence for strategic objectives itself is not unprecedented (nor is it always successful). There are numerous examples of states doing this. Most notable for the UK was the infamous September Dossier which alleged Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The monumental failure of UK intelligence surrounding Iraq’s WMD program demonstrated the dangers of politicising intelligence assessments when making them public. Nevertheless, the scale, persistence, and accuracy of public intelligence assessments on Russia demonstrates the utility of making classified intelligence public.
Beating Putin at his own game
Although the public release of intelligence failed to deter the Russian invasion, it did deny Putin a surprise advantage. Furthermore, it demonstrated the ability to beat Putin at his own game: information warfare. Russia was once believed to be a master at utilising non-military means to achieve strategic and political goals, also known as hybrid warfare.
In the past, attempts to counter Russia hybrid threats have often been ineffective and too late. In the USA, the scale and effectiveness of Moscow’s plans to influence the 2016 presidential election was not realised until afterwards. Similarly, the West failed to deter the 2014 annexation of Crimea and responded softly despite Moscow flaunting international law.
Britain and the wider West appear to have learnt from the past and confronted Russian narratives by releasing classified reports, detailing invasion plans as the Kremlin ordered troops to amass on Ukraine’s borders. According to intelligence scholar Huw Dylan, British intelligence have “denied Russia the initiative in the information space”.
Regular Twitter updates from the MoD Defence Intelligence have provided up to date reports on Russian military numbers, troops morale, casualties, war crimes, false flag operations, disinformation, and expected invasion routes. Although exposing Russian secrets did not prevent Putin from invading, it has helped convey the truth to the Russian population, rally support amongst Ukraine and its allies, and highlight the atrocities committed by the Russian military.
A new role?
Prior to the Ukrainian conflict, British intelligence agencies had already begun to adopt more public facing roles. Head of MI6 Richard Moore said in a rare interview that his service “needs to be more open to stay secret” and he is the first Secret Intelligence Service officer to publicly use Twitter. Head of GCHQ Jeremy Fleming described the “remarkable” nature in which large amounts of “intelligence has been so quickly declassified to get ahead of Putin’s actions”.
No doubt these intelligence updates are just the tip of the iceberg of what is known about Russian capabilities and intentions, yet what has been released is having a positive impact on policy and should be continued in the future.
Although the role of the UK intelligence agencies has been widely praised in the accuracy of information, publicising classified intelligence is not without risk. Firstly, intelligence can be politicised when security agencies find themselves in the policy space (as was demonstrated in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq). Secondly, releasing highly classified information risks exposing sources and methods which can put assets lives in danger.
Despite these risks of politicisation and exposing sources, Britain must keep up efforts to publish appropriate information, especially as the Ukraine conflict drags on and begins to fall out of the news cycle and public consciousness.
Looking to the future, the British intelligence community will be expected to take on a more public facing role, not just limited to the war in Ukraine. This approach appears to have been adopted already with the national security threats posed by China. The British Security Service MI5 recently exposed a UK-based lawyer with access to top political circles in Westminster, Christian Lee, as a Chinese “agent of influence”, making a public address warning of the threat posed by China. Similarly, the Chief of MI6 stated in a public interview that China was his agency’s “single greatest priority”.
Declassified intelligence continues to inform the public of the activities and priorities of the British intelligence community bringing more transparency and accountability to their actions. This approach is likely a blueprint for the future, and we can expect to see British intelligence to continue stepping out of the shadows.
Oliver Davis is studying for a masters in Intelligence and International Security at King’s College London.