The nature of US intelligence is radically different – and more open

Since countries collect intelligence, governments try to use it without revealing how they got it. This difficult balancing act is sometimes described as a “Coventry conundrum”. According to popular myth, Winston Churchill knew from the Enigma code breakers at Bletchley Park that Germany would bomb Coventry on the night of November 14, 1940. But to avoid jeopardizing their vital work, he did nothing to protect the city and over 500 civilians died, (The real story is much more complicated.)

The world has changed a lot since then. Washington’s current tilt toward and away from operationalizing intelligence is driven by the information revolution and its contradictory consequences. For one thing, there are fewer secrets in the world today. On the other hand, it is becoming more and more difficult to determine what is true.

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The world becomes more transparent. Russia’s military build-up around Ukraine was largely public, mainly due to the explosion of commercial satellite imagery technology. As technologies like these proliferate, so does public awareness of intelligence capabilities. Protecting intelligence sources remains more important than ever, but protecting “methods” is less necessary.

At the same time, the information environment is becoming increasingly cluttered. The flood of publicly available information shifts the work of intelligence professionals from uncovering secrets to determining what is true. The spread of fake news has heightened the importance of this work.

But in a contested global information environment, it is not enough to know what is true. Governments must speak the truth clearly and effectively if they are to counter misinformation and shape the narrative.

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Still, it’s too early to properly judge Washington’s new approach to intelligence and information competition. We may never know if the US revelations significantly constrained or frustrated Putin, and it’s possible that Putin could have turned them to his advantage by closing his vulnerabilities.

More broadly, the credibility of US intelligence still suffers from the use of misinformation to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. US big tech has spread more disinformation than Russia. America’s own computing environment remains unhealthy while the QAnon narrative – rooted in US intelligence conspiracy theories – is still going strong. And all the while, former president, and possible future president, Donald Trump continues to praise Putin.

Ben Scott directs the Rules-Based Order Project at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

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