Editor’s Note: This article is based on remarks made by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines at an event commemorating Just Security’s 10th anniversary held on Feb. 29 at New York University’s School of Law. Update: The full transcript is now available here.

Transparency is not what springs to mind when most people think of the intelligence community’s work. Yet it is a priority for Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines who, alongside National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and CIA Director William Burns, is spearheading efforts within the Biden administration to transform the practice of intelligence. The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) is sharing more secrets than ever before with three aims: deterring rivals from taking certain actions, conducting intelligence diplomacy with allies, and informing and engaging in public debate.

To achieve these aims, the Biden administration is relying on “strategic declassification,” the intentional public disclosure of classified information to further national security ends. Strategic declassification was crucial to alerting the world of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to invade Ukraine under a false pretext. Beyond Russia, White House officials have credited this approach with preventing Serbia from reinvading Kosovo, blunting Chinese saber-rattling on Taiwan, pressuring Iran to stop supporting Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, and countering Hamas’ claims about Israeli airstrikes, among other issues. From the lead up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the war in Gaza, spycraft as statecraft appears to be the new normal.

In many ways, the sharing of secrets is business as usual. The IC has long “downgraded” classified information to support policy goals, dating back at least to the Cuban Missile Crisis. What is unprecedented now is the institutionalization and pace of intelligence disclosures, which reportedly have increased from one to two downgrade requests per month to several in a day. Strategic declassification, as Burns recently observed, “has become an even more powerful tool for policymakers.”

But the focus on spycraft as statecraft obscures the third pillar of this strategy. Increasingly, the IC is using strategic declassification, not only to shape the views of rivals and allies, but also to inform, engage, and build trust with the public. That was a key theme of Director Haines’ remarks, speaking in honor of Just Security’s 10-year anniversary event:

Public debate and controversy isn’t a bug. It’s a feature in our system. Public controversy allows individuals and institutions to course correct – to ensure they have a sense of what the American people believe is lawful, ethical, and wise. And the Intelligence Community has unique challenges in this arena.

Discerning what is “lawful, ethical, and wise” is difficult when working in the shadows. A major challenge, according to Haines, is that the IC has to decide “what is within the lines and what is outside of the lines without the benefit of public debate. And this isn’t always easy. The relevant legal sources do not always provide precise guidance.”

One of the ways that Haines and her colleagues are trying to generate this debate is through a transparency initiative at the National Intelligence Council under the Intelligence Transparency Plan. Through this initiative, the IC is publishing unclassified or declassified analytic work on a range of national security problems. As Haines put it:

With the increasing importance of national security in our everyday lives, the more we can help to inform the public debate around such issues, the better. And in doing so, we try to prioritize analysis on matters of significant public interest, while also focusing on threat assessments and related information in instances where the IC’s assessments differ from information in the public sphere.

This transparency, according to Haines, serves the dual purpose of both informing the public debate and ensuring that debate shapes IC thinking. “Our transparency serves another purpose: improving our work,” she said. By exposing IC analysis to diverse perspectives from stakeholders in academia, civil society, and elsewhere, Haines argued, the IC can test hypotheses, engage in external research verification, and “prevent cognitive and motivational biases.”

The IC is also leveraging transparency initiatives, including through strategic declassification, to rebuild public trust in intelligence information, institutions, and frameworks at a time when confidence in government is historically low. “Transparency is a foundational element of securing public trust in our endeavors,” said Haines.

Building and rebuilding public trust will be critical to ensuring the success of strategic declassification more broadly. As a viral exchange between State Department spokesperson Ned Price and AP correspondent Matt Lee on the declassification of intelligence pertaining to Russia’s planned invasion of Ukraine underscored, strategic declassification will work only if the United States can overcome its checkered past of misusing intelligence for propaganda and other purposes.

Ultimately, disclosure of secrets may backfire under certain circumstances. If used incorrectly or inappropriately, strategic declassification has the potential to increase national security risks, undermine partnerships, and erode public trust. The politicization of intelligence, where analysis is skewed to influence the intended audiences of strategic declassification, presents more of an acute risk now than ever before. The line between strategic declassification and strategic disinformation, particularly when it comes to engaging with the public, must never be crossed.

As in other domains, the promise and peril of strategic declassification depends on the accuracy of intelligence information and confidence in analytic judgements, the establishment of robust institutional guardrails and oversight mechanisms, and the deployment of principled leadership at the right moment. Transparency within the IC is a crucial, but insufficient, step for ensuring these elements are in place through the next presidential administration and beyond.

IMAGE: U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines delivers remarks at Just Security’s 10 year anniversary event on February 29, 2024 (Photo: Melissa Bender)