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The Age of Intelligence Diplomacy

I will never forget Feb. 22, 2022. That evening, I joined U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a secure room in the State Department for a meeting of cabinet-level and other senior members of the National Security Council (NSC). The customary intelligence briefing at the top of the meeting contained a stark warning: Russia was poised to commence its anticipated full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

In the preceding months, the United States had been strategically downgrading and declassifying intelligence to warn Ukraine—and the world—about Russia’s plans. That night at the State Department, NSC leadership concluded that we needed to share our new urgent threat information with Ukraine immediately.

It just so happened that Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was in the building following earlier meetings with Blinken. Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines asked me and Haines’s deputy for analysis, Morgan Muir, to leave the NSC meeting and work with intelligence agencies to clear language that could be shared with Ukraine. After receiving clearances, we located Kuleba on the seventh floor of the State Department and relayed the news. With a look of despair on his face, Kuleba called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to prepare their nation for war.

In the end, exposing Russia’s plans in advance did not avert war. But U.S. intelligence disclosures enabled Ukraine to defend itself, mobilized allies and partners to support Kyiv, undermined Russian disinformation in the eyes of the public, and restored the credibility of U.S. intelligence—and of the United States—in the eyes of the world. If the Iraq War highlighted the risks of intelligence diplomacy, Russia’s war in Ukraine showcased its opportunities.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba walk together
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba walk together

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba arrive for a news conference at the State Department in Washington on Feb. 22, 2022. Carolyn Kaster/AFP via Getty Images

The United States has always shared threat intelligence with foreign partners, and intelligence has long been a valuable card in the hand of U.S. diplomats. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine symbolized the remarkable evolution—in scale, scope, and speed—of intelligence support to U.S. diplomacy. It also marked a turning point in the global credibility of the U.S. intelligence community, the 18 agencies that conduct intelligence activities to support U.S. national security interests.

Strategic, authorized intelligence disclosures played a central role in enabling the U.S. and allied response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Intelligence disclosures allowed CIA Director William Burns to warn Russian President Vladimir Putin in November 2021 that the United States was aware of Moscow’s intentions in Ukraine and would respond decisively. They also provided warnings to the Ukrainian people—and the world—about Russia’s plans. An example of such a disclosure was U.S. intelligence that Moscow might fabricate so-called “false flag” atrocities to justify an invasion of Ukraine.

In light of the intelligence community’s accuracy and success in exposing Russia’s plots, many in government, the media, and general public have suggested intelligence disclosures could be used as a tool of diplomacy in other global conflicts and challenges.

There is no commonly accepted definition of “intelligence diplomacy.” Some view the concept narrowly, as traditional intelligence sharing with foreign partners. Others regard it as a means to supercharge public diplomacy campaigns—or to draw attention to statements from government officials, such as press releases. At the State Department, we define intelligence diplomacy as “the use of intelligence to support diplomatic activities and public diplomacy to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives, inform partners, build alliances, facilitate cooperation, drive convergence in approaches and views, and verify treaties.”

Used strategically and responsibly, downgraded or declassified intelligence can be a powerful enabler of U.S. foreign policy. In October 1962, for example, the United States presented declassified intelligence to the United Nations Security Council that exposed the presence of Soviet offensive missiles in Cuba. In April 2017, to garner support for strikes against Syria, the White House declassified intelligence detailing the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons on its own people.

But without appropriate safeguards and oversight, intelligence diplomacy can also be used in ways that increase risks to national security, undermine trust with foreign partners, and erode U.S. interests. Most notoriously, in 2003—before launching an invasion of Iraq—the Bush administration declassified intelligence to make the case that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. That information turned out to be inaccurate—and sullied the intelligence community’s reputation around the world for a generation.

The challenge for the intelligence community and policymakers is to maximize the benefits of intelligence diplomacy while guarding against this kind of misuse or abuse. As we contemplate the future of intelligence diplomacy, we must never forget the lessons of Iraq. At the same time, it is worth outlining why intelligence diplomacy was so successful in the U.S. response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The first reason is President Joe Biden’s decisive leadership. In late 2021, as Russia was mobilizing its forces and laying the groundwork for what the intelligence community clearly assessed was a forthcoming assault on Ukraine, Biden directed that intelligence on Moscow’s plans and intentions be downgraded. He sought to level the information playing field—so that Ukraine and other U.S. allies and partners, as well as the general public, could see exactly what the United States was seeing.

Second, the United States’ policy intent was principled and clear: to prevent war. As Sullivan noted from the White House podium in early 2022, “in the situation in Iraq, intelligence was used and deployed from this very podium to start a war. We are trying to stop a war, to prevent a war, to avert a war.” Blinken delivered a similar message at the U.N. Security Council just days before Russia’s invasion.

Third, U.S. intelligence on Russia and Ukraine was—and continues to be—specific, consistent, and accurate. Intelligence community analysts had a high degree of confidence in the credibility and reliability of information they collected on Russian activities and intentions—the result of years of investments in collection and analytic capabilities.

Fourth, new open-source data on Russian activities, such as commercial imagery and social media, allowed the intelligence community to downgrade or declassify credible information to share with foreign partners or the public without jeopardizing more sensitive collection sources and methods.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainin President Volodymyr Zelensky seated around a large table with other state department leaders.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainin President Volodymyr Zelensky seated around a large table with other state department leaders.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky participate in a bilateral meeting in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Sept. 21, 2023. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Under Blinken’s leadership, the State Department has taken a focused and deliberate approach to infuse more diplomacy with intelligence. In doing so, the department has worked closely with the intelligence community. Many senior State Department officials—from ambassadors and other foreign service officers to undersecretaries, the deputy secretary, and Blinken himself—now regularly seek out opportunities to use downgraded or declassified intelligence in international engagements, public remarks, or diplomatic demarches.

Blinken alluded to a “profound synergy between our intelligence and our diplomacy” during a talk given to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in July 2022. “I think we really need to continue to make [intelligence diplomacy] part of our thinking,” he added, “not just when it comes to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine but across the board.”

In September 2023, Blinken outlined the United States’ approach to diplomacy as it transitions from the end of the post-Cold War order to a new era of strategic competition defined by the struggle between democracy and autocracy. At the core of this strategy, he said, is “reengaging, revitalizing, and reimagining our greatest strategic asset: America’s alliances and partnerships.”

Intelligence will play a key role in supporting and developing these relationships. Sharing information can build trust, establish common views that are informed by credible and reliable information, and open new areas for cooperation among partners. Strengthened alliances are also a crucial asset for the U.S. intelligence community. The Biden administration’s National Security Strategy and the DNI’s recent National Intelligence Strategy both make clear that intelligence diplomacy will play a central part in U.S. strategic competition against authoritarian and revisionist powers.

The sheer volume of downgrade and declassification requests by State Department officials and diplomats underscores this new reality. For instance, in 2021, there were more than 900 requests to downgrade or declassify intelligence. In 2023, there were more than 1,100 such requests—more than 20 requests per week.

The State Department has employed intelligence diplomacy beyond the war in Ukraine. In 2023 alone, downgraded or declassified intelligence was used publicly—and privately in diplomatic channels—to warn China about the consequences of providing lethal weapons to Russia to aid its war in Ukraine. More recently, the State Department used downgraded intelligence as part of a larger effort to encourage a country that was considering importing Chinese military hardware in violation of bilateral agreements with the United States to change course. And the State Department has relied heavily on downgraded intelligence to engage with countries to prevent the proliferation of surveillance technologies to governments tied to human rights abuses.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to intelligence diplomacy. Different government agencies, in the United States and elsewhere, will develop and deploy models consistent with their own authorities, objectives, and—at least in the U.S. context—federal guidance from the DNI. For our part, the State Department has taken several steps to institutionalize best practices about whether, when, and how to use intelligence diplomacy with rigor, discipline, and care.

First, we established guiding principles to help inform requests by State Department personnel to disclose or publicly release intelligence. These seven core principles complement existing intelligence community disclosure policy set by the DNI.

Intelligence diplomacy should support a defined policy objective; be consistent with and reinforce other elements of national power; prioritize strengthening alliances and partnerships; rely on credible, reliable, and ideally multisourced intelligence to maintain U.S. credibility; and strive to share new, unique information that is not otherwise available through open sources. Furthermore, intelligence used in support of diplomacy should be clear, understandable, and easy to communicate to its intended audience. Intelligence diplomacy proposals should also carefully weigh the expected benefits against potential risks to sources and methods.

In January, we codified these principles and guidelines for using intelligence diplomacy in internal State Department policy to enhance awareness among our workforce and provide guidance for future generations of foreign and civil service officers.

Second, we leveraged technology to expand access to intelligence diplomacy for U.S. diplomats at home and abroad by making resources and intelligence-sharing tools available online across classified and unclassified networks in the State Department.

Finally, we have begun developing training to educate new foreign service officers and ambassadors about intelligence diplomacy and how to integrate the capability into their diplomatic activities at U.S. missions worldwide.

The bottom line is this: Intelligence diplomacy is increasingly vital to supporting—and enabling—the mission of the State Department, the lead agency responsible for U.S. foreign policy. But it must be leveraged in a manner consistent with national security and U.S. values. Without guardrails, there is a risk that intelligence diplomacy could be misused or abused.

As I return to that solemn night in February 2022, I’m reminded of how much the world has changed—and how much the relationship between intelligence and diplomacy has evolved in just a couple of years. We can no longer afford to regard intelligence solely as an analytic resource. Instead, intelligence must be viewed as a critical enabler of U.S. diplomacy on the frontlines of our competition with strategic adversaries. With the right safeguards, intelligence diplomacy will play a critical role in securing America’s future.

This essay was adapted from remarks Holmgren delivered on Oct. 8, 2023, for the Cipher Brief Threat Conference. The topic was “Intelligence and Diplomacy: A New Model for a New Era.”

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