Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine has been accompanied by an intense information war in a struggle to shape public perception about Moscow’s justifications for resorting to armed force. In a steady stream of “authorized disclosures,” U.S. intelligence agencies released detailed information on Russian plans and intentions in the weeks before its invasion of Ukraine. Aside from detailed reports on troop buildup and movements, one piece of information, first reported on Feb. 3, stood out: that Russia had produced a video purportedly showing an attack by the Ukrainian military against Russian territory or Russian-speaking civilians. Putin’s regime was building a case for war and, thanks to western intelligence agencies, everyone was in on the plot.
This supposedly novel policy of informing the public about intelligence assessments, what New Yorker writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells called “a turn in strategy toward a transparency initiative,” was intended to obstruct Russian disinformation operations. The frequent lack of evidentiary support for authorized intelligence disclosures suggests, however, that the transparency initiative has only partly succeeded. In light of growing digital open-source intelligence capabilities, the media and the public should demand a deeper commitment to openness and transparency going forward.
Biden’s New Strategy of Authorized Disclosures
The turn towards transparency in the midst of geopolitical crises is not entirely new. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, for example, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.) Adlai Stevenson presented reconnaissance photographs of – in fact existing – Soviet ballistic missile bases in Cuba at a U.N. Security Council emergency session. As one of the principal narratives to justify NATO’s intervention in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999 to end President Slobodan Milosevic’s attacks on Kosovo amid an insurgency there, German intelligence published evidence previously obtained from the Bulgarian military of “Operation Horseshoe,” an alleged – and later largely debunked – plan by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav military for ethnic cleansing of the Albanian population of Kosovo. And in 2003, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell famously shared various types of intelligence that purportedly demonstrated the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, weapons that were never found in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion.
But, according to experts, never before has intelligence been disclosed more or less in real time, and never before have declassified assessments been so extensive. Alongside other objectives, this shift in strategy aimed at preemptively constructing a counternarrative to the Kremlin’s false claims concerning Ukraine’s supposed transgressions. As such, this corrective narrative has quickly been employed by U.S. and allied government representatives in various fora as the basis for invoking Russia’s responsibility for its blatant breach of international law.
During a briefing on Feb. 24, the day the Russian invasion began, President Joe Biden reminded the press that, “we’ve been transparent with the world. We’ve shared declassified evidence about Russia’s plans and cyber attacks and false pretexts so that there can be no confusion or cover-up about what Putin was doing.”
There is reason to doubt this claim. Occasionally, and mostly in the context of troop build-up or movements, the administration did present what is known as “raw intelligence,” including satellite pictures, to support its factual claims about Russia’s intentions. However, when it came to Moscow’s disinformation campaigns to create a pretext, government officials in the United States and allies such as the United Kingdom never presented any supporting evidence that could be used to assess the credibility of the disclosed intelligence. Invoking the need to protect intelligence “sources and methods,” the assessments could not be validated by either the media or the broader public. This was the case with the purported fake video of Ukrainian atrocities, supposedly a key component of Putin’s plot to fabricate a justification. Its existence remains a mere assertion.
Irrespective of whether the information released was accurate or not, a “transparency initiative” built on unverifiable intelligence complicates efforts to build public trust. The Biden administration’s communication strategy on this does not resolve the larger question of whether such an understanding of transparency is ultimately conducive to the public conversations that are necessary to scrutinize and legitimize government conduct in a situation of global crisis. This is a problem especially for those types of intelligence that asserted alleged particular plot points that subsequently never materialized, such as the fake video: Did Moscow decide against publication after the U.S. exposed the plan or was the intelligence wrong?
The problem is, as Putin himself gleefully pointed out, western intelligence has its own history of factual claims serving as the basis for the use of armed force that were eventually exposed as unsustainable or false. Both “Operation Horseshoe” to ostensibly rid Kosovo of its Albanian population and the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – along with any tangible ties between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda – turned out to be wrong. Yet, each time, despite early warning signs, the media happily spread the government line.
In the weeks prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, reminders of past intelligence failures became increasingly prominent in the political discourse. Journalists who remained skeptical of certain “authorized disclosures” were swiftly derided as uninformed and clueless. This situation came to a head during a tense exchange on Feb. 3 between U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price and Associated Press reporter Matt Lee in which Lee repeatedly asked for evidence to support the intelligence on the fake video of Ukrainian aggression. In response, Price insisted that he had, in fact, already delivered the evidence, and that it should be reassurance enough that the government would “declassify information only when we’re confident in that information.” The verbal sparring continued until the spokesperson burst out that if Lee continued to doubt the claim’s credibility and wanted instead to “find solace in information that the Russians are putting out, that is for you to do.” Aside from the disdain toward a member of the free press (it is worth watching the whole encounter in full), Price presented a false choice: either believe the U.S. government blindly, or chose Putin’s side.
Open-Source Intelligence and the Paradigm of Open Verification
There was, of course, good reason to suspect that Putin’s regime was lying to the world all along. The Kremlin’s notoriously fraught relationship with the truth has long been established. The prevailing narrative of its cynical pretenses for an invasion fits into a pattern dating back all the way to 1999, when Putin allegedly resorted to staging terrorist attacks against apartment buildings in order to justify the Second Chechen War to consolidate his claim to power in Moscow. Stories about Ukrainian aggression surely were aimed at a domestic Russian audience rather than the international public, although it bears repeating that these falsehoods were employed to construct a justification in distinctly legal terms.
Without entertaining philosophical debates on the nature and accessibility of the truth, it is fair to say that we know what we know about Moscow’s plotting not because of authorized intelligence disclosures, but thanks to the tireless work of open-source researchers and journalists. Simultaneously with the White House’s press briefings, organizations such as Bellingcat assembled, analyzed, and published pieces of evidence of Russian disinformation that were publicly available through social media, commercial satellites such as Maxar Technologies, and other stunningly detailed sources in what The Economist recently described as the “coming-out party” for open-source intelligence (OSINT).
The crucial difference between Biden’s “authorized disclosures” and OSINT is what Eyal Weizman, the founder and director of Forensic Architecture, calls the paradigm of “open verification.” Acknowledging the lingering doubts that exist in civil society against official proclamations of expertise and knowledge, Weizman emphasizes the need to be “as open and transparent as possible” when establishing factual claims. This means that any assertion must be made in such a way that allows it to be examined by others. For example, the open-source researchers that brought to light Moscow’s attempts to fabricate justificatory narratives consistently worked with publicly accessible databases that could be tested and examined by anyone. When carried out as envisioned, open-source research is a social practice that can produce factually correct counternarratives through the “assembling of credibility,” as opposed to merely asserting the truth.
Given the recent buzz surrounding OSINT and the fact that some media outlets such as the New York Times have established their own departments that conduct reporting based on this principle, it is puzzling that in the run-up to the Russian invasion, parts of the media started to echo the government’s claim about the “unprecedented” nature of its public information campaign despite the disclosed intelligence being largely unverifiable. Official assertions that can’t be backed up with publicly available evidence, or raw intelligence provided by the government, should be treated with caution even, or perhaps especially, if they neatly fit into our preconceived narrative of a geopolitical crisis. If anything, that must be the enduring lesson of the Iraq debacle.
Furthermore, the over-reliance on unsupported intelligence makes it easier, not only for Putin himself but also for NATO’s detractors in the West, to brush off such claims as pure fantasies born of anti-Russian hysteria. Whether or not events subsequently play out exactly as predicted, such opaque methods continuously provide Putin’s regime with rhetorical escape routes that negatively impact international public discourse.
This is not to suggest that OSINT practices are a panacea to the growing problem of disinformation. Publicly available evidence retrieved through social media platforms or other means is susceptible to manipulation (e.g., forgery or deepfake technologies). OSINT researchers, quite naturally, are themselves not free of their own biases, blind spots, or agendas. Such issues can only be addressed by strict adherence to the principle of open verification, by forming networks of knowledge production that serve as mutual checks for each factual claim to be made public.
Toward a politics of true transparency
None of this is to suggest that intelligence services aren’t useful and necessary. Quite obviously – aside from relying on OSINT for many of their assessments as well – they have tools at their disposal that are far beyond the the capabilities of OSINT researchers. Their work is critical for informing policy decisions. In this case, the otherwise highly classified findings the United States was willing to share with its allies were probably instrumental in building a united coalition against Moscow from the start.
But that doesn’t mean that unverifiable intelligence assessments should deserve the unconditional trust of the public going forward. Amid a fast-breaking geopolitical crisis, the scourge of disinformation that has contributed to the troubling erosion of public trust in institutions and expertise won’t be amended by relying on the tools that have repeatedly failed the public before. Moreover, raw intelligence reporting is often ambiguous or uncertain, which makes it inherently ill-suited for public discourse. It is primarily the media’s responsibility to remain mindful of this in its reporting on international crisis situations. As political scientist Mark A. Wolfgram observed, “at the moment when the action is hot…the free press system can quite easily be brought into the service of government objectives.” In this sense, the U.S. administration’s narrative maneuvers prior to Russia’s new invasion of Ukraine contributed to an overall unstable information space, thereby risking to further undermine the very values its new “transparency initiative” claims to safeguard. In the future, public officials should at least substantiate disclosed intelligence assessments with available OSINT to the extent that this is possible in a given instance. That way, no sources and methods would be compromised.
To connect the argument to a larger issue, the epistemic crisis that has been engulfing the body politic will not be resolved if government officials refuse to support factual claims with at least some degree of evidence that is open to public scrutiny. In his book on Bellingcat, founder Eliot Higgins argues that “the response to information chaos is transparency.” As the Ukraine crisis unfolded, the Biden administration, with apparently the best intentions, certainly tried something new in terms of information politics. But whatever we might want to call this strategy, we should be careful to view it as true transparency. For now, both the media and the public have reason to remain skeptical of any type of official information that is unverifiable due to concerns about secret “sources and methods.” To paraphrase the Israeli legal scholar Eliav Lieblich, if governments want to be believed, show us the evidence.