America’s top spies say they are looking for ways to declassify and release more intelligence about adversaries’ bad behavior, after a group of four-star military commanders sent a rare and urgent plea asking for help in the information war against Russia and China.
A host of troubling actions from those two countries — including efforts to damage America’s relationships with allies and to violate other countries’ sovereignty — mean the Intelligence Community must do more to show the world what Russia and China are doing, according to the commanders.
“We request this help to better enable the US, and by extension its allies and partners, to win without fighting, to fight now in so-called gray zones, and to supply ammunition in the ongoing war of narratives,” the commanders who oversee U.S. military forces in Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, as well as special operations troops, wrote to then-acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire last January.
“Unfortunately, we continue to miss opportunities to clarify truth, counter distortions, puncture false narratives, and influence events in time to make a difference,” they added.
The fact that it was signed by nine of the 11 four-star combatant commanders — all but one of whom are still in uniform — is nearly unheard of, said multiple government officials familiar with the memo who said it underscored an unusual level of alarm among the top brass. The top leaders for U.S. Central Command and Cyber Command did not sign.
“The Russians and the Chinese, in particular, have weaponized information,” said Kari Bingen, who was one of the recipients of the memo when she was undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security. “This is a significant concern that is being raised by military commanders and intelligence professionals.”
“The combatant commands are out at the edge,” she added in an interview. “Their forces are interacting with our allies and partners, and seeing what our adversaries are doing, on a daily basis. They need timely and relevant information to expose bad activity and to counter what they’re seeing.”
Beijing has continued its military expansion into contested areas of the South China Sea, most recently a chain of islands claimed by the Philippines. It has also mounted an aggressive campaign to bully Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province, including brazenly sending more than two dozen combat planes into its air defense zone this month.
The memo from the generals and admirals, which was unclassified but labeled “for official use only,” insisted the status quo falls far short of what they need to counter such propaganda, which means broadcasting to the world that Russia and China are undermining global order and democratic institutions.
One area of intelligence that the military said needs to be made more public is satellite images. A former senior Pentagon intelligence official said the memo alludes to frustrations some combatant commanders have about their inability to share satellite photos with allies and partners about adversaries’ behavior.
In December 2020, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence requested intelligence agencies “review their existing procedures and improve their posture to support Combatant Commands at the speed and scale they require,” Lahr said in a statement.
He added that “initial responses” were received from directors of the spy agencies in January of this year. Now, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and David Taylor, who is performing the duties of undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, “are reviewing the agencies’ progress and emphasize that countering malign influence remains a top priority.”
Officials outlined a series of steps in their efforts to respond to the military’s continuing concerns about losing the information war. For starters, that includes “a review of existing IC procedures to shorten timelines and create efficiencies in disclosure, downgrading, and declassification processes.” Another goal is “the publication of priority intelligence requirements that address strategic messaging and malign influence,” Lahr said.
In other words, that means ODNI is telling other U.S. intelligence agencies to increase their focus on how hostile governments try to shape global public opinion, both secretly and publicly. But the statement doesn’t indicate just how high up on the list of priorities that focus has moved.