Inside the White House Program to Share America’s Secrets

On the afternoon of Sept. 27, a Balkans expert at the White House got a disturbing call from a U.S. intelligence agency. Serbian forces were massing along the length of their country’s border with Kosovo, where NATO has kept an uneasy peace since a bloody war of secession in 1999. Three days earlier, more than two dozen armed Serbs had killed a Kosovar police officer in an attack. Now Serbia was deploying heavy weapons and troops. “We were very worried that Serbia could be preparing to launch a military invasion,” says one National Security Council (NSC) official.

The question was what to do about it. Months of mounting tensions in a remote corner of southeastern Europe had not received much attention in the media. Diplomatic efforts by the U.K., Italy, and other countries with troops on the ground in Kosovo had failed to calm the situation. In Washington, attention was focused on chaos in Congress; in much of Europe, the top priority was marshaling continued support for Ukraine. So as part of an effort to pressure Serbia to back down, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan approved a request from his Europe team to declassify elements of the Serbian buildup for public release.

The NSC Intelligence Directorate edited the secret details of the buildup to obscure the sources and methods behind the intelligence. Then it shipped the request to the office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) in Northern Virginia via classified email. On Sept. 29, after a two-day scramble to clear the declassification, NSC spokesperson John Kirby convened an unscheduled Zoom call with members of the White House press corps. Kirby gave new information about the Sept. 24 attack on the Kosovar police officer and broke the news of the latest Serbian deployment, revealing that it included advanced artillery, tanks, and mechanized infantry units. As coverage spiked, European countries joined the U.S. in applying new diplomatic pressure on the Serbs, and the U.K. announced an additional troop deployment to Kosovo. Within days, Serbian troops were pulling back.

The Secret Sharers Time Magazine cover

The declassification and release of the Serbian troop movements is one example of a novel White House approach to using intelligence that has grown out of the U.S. response to the war in Ukraine. Starting in the fall of 2021, as U.S. spies became convinced Russia was preparing to invade, Sullivan worked with Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William Burns to “downgrade” classified details of Moscow’s moves. “We were sitting on this troubling information,” says Maher Bitar, NSC coordinator for intelligence and defense policy, “and we needed to get ahead of what the Russians were going to do.”

More than two years later, the White House has built a broad program to share secrets when it serves strategic goals. About once a week, White House officials see intelligence that they want to make public and get approval from Sullivan to try, more than a dozen current and former White House and national-security officials tell TIME. Intelligence officials at the NSC send requests to the ODNI, which processes them, agreeing on cleared language with those who created the secrets to begin with. “The ultimate decision on whether to green-light or red-light a given piece of information rests with the professionals in the intelligence community,” Sullivan says.

The motivation behind the program, the officials say, is that it works. Strategic declassification has denied Russian President Vladimir Putin “false narratives,” Burns said in a speech last summer, “putting him in the uncomfortable and unaccustomed position of being on his back foot.” The effort has expanded beyond Russia. The U.S. has declassified intelligence to blunt Chinese saber-rattling in the Taiwan Strait, to pressure Iran to stop supplying weapons to the Houthis attacking shipping vessels in the Red Sea, and to counter Hamas’ false claims about Israeli strikes. “This is a game changer,” says Kirby. “I hope they never put it back in the bottle.”

Kosovar police officers after the attack near the border with Serbia

The U.S. has selectively declassified and leaked intelligence for as long as it has collected it, but the Biden Administration’s secret-sharing program is new in several ways, current and former intelligence officials say. Where once the ODNI received one or two downgrade requests a month, it now sometimes receives many more than that in a day. While other agencies have jumped into the declassification game, much of the work is driven out of the White House. Rather than leaking one-off intelligence scoops, NSC officials combine multiple secrets with open-source intelligence from commercial-satellite imagery, battlefield bloggers, and news reports, distributing packages that echo the finished intelligence reports they receive every morning. “It’s been done piecemeal over the years,” says former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow. “It’s more strategic and orchestrated this time.”

Not everyone thinks that’s a good thing. Skeptics point to the U.S. government’s history of cherry-picking intelligence to deceive foreigners, and Americans, during the Cold War and to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Members of the U.S. intel community, ever protective of their secrets, want to limit the program to the conflict in Ukraine. Some in both parties worry a White House–run propaganda effort could be used for personal or political advantage. “Now we’ve got this declassification weapon that, put in the wrong hands, is very dangerous,” says a former CIA official.

But the world of secrets is changing, and America is scrambling to adapt. Russia has refined its social media propaganda operation so aggressively since 2016 that it believes only 1% of its bot army is detected on platforms like X and TikTok, according to a U.S. intelligence document published last year by the Washington Post. China is using advanced AI in its propaganda operations, the Rand Corp. said in a recent report. Sharing America’s secrets with the world before enemies try to influence and undermine democracies, advocates say, is one of the best ways to fight back. “We’ve learned you can beat a lie to the punch if you know it’s coming,” says Kirby. “We’re getting out ahead of them.”

At the same time, the proliferation of classified information means that America’s secrets are worth less than they used to be—and are harder to keep. The U.S. intelligence community sucks up the equivalent of 29 petabytes or 500 billion pages worth of information every day, classifies tens of millions of documents a year, and produces an estimated 50,000 classified reports annually, according to the National Security Agency, the National Archives, and public reporting. Accused mass leakers Edward Snowden and Airman First Class Jack Teixeira were both IT workers hired to manage that ocean of intel. Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump have faced special-counsel investigations for their sloppy handling of classified information. America’s attempt to safely warehouse billions of secrets is failing from the top of the intel chain to the bottom. As Justice Potter Stewart said in the Pentagon Papers case, “When everything is classified, then nothing is classified, and the system becomes one to be disregarded by the cynical or the careless, and to be manipulated by those intent on self-protection or self-promotion.”

The result is a toxic mix of public skepticism and diminished security. The share of Americans who believe the intelligence community respects their privacy and civil liberties dropped from 52% in 2020 to 44% in 2022, according to a University of Texas survey. Bandar Togel Terpercaya After revelations of abuse by the FBI, Congress is struggling to renew the controversial Section 702 mass-surveillance program that the government says is crucial to fighting everything from fentanyl trafficking to terrorism to Chinese spies.

In its declassification program, the White House thinks it has the start of an answer to all three problems: disinformation, overclassification, and public distrust. “That’s a pretty good 1, 2, 3 from my perspective,” Sullivan tells TIME. He adds, “Obviously, this approach will have to evolve over time as we learn more.” The story of how the Biden Administration developed its secret-sharing program, and the search for how to use it safely, shows how far the U.S. government still has to go.

A Russian tank hit by Ukrainian forces

The first target of the American secret sharers’ efforts was Vladimir Putin. In mid
-October 2021, senior national-security leaders briefed the President, Sullivan, and other White House officials that Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine. Sullivan’s first reaction was surprise. The second was to come up with a way to deter it. Biden decided to send Burns, a seasoned diplomat and former ambassador to Russia, to confront Putin. “We wanted to demonstrate to the Russians that we were aware of their planning to launch an invasion of Ukraine in order to disabuse them of the idea that they could have the element of surprise,” says Eric Green, then the senior director for Russia and Central Asia at the NSC. “But we also wanted to make sure what Bill Burns said was not burning sources and methods.” The result was a “downgrade,” or partial declassification, of the briefing Sullivan and the senior U.S. officials had received, Green recalls.

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