White House officials are formalizing rules for how and when to declassify sensitive intelligence as part of a bolder, more expansive approach to deter adversaries and protect allies and partners.
Buoyed by the successful use of declassified intelligence to both thwart Russia's plans for a surprise invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and to galvanize allies in support of Kyiv, the White House wants to make the tactic a permanent part of its playbook.
"We fully intend to use this sort of capability outside the Russia-Ukraine conflict," White House deputy national security adviser Jon Finer said Friday, speaking to an intelligence and security conference just outside Washington.
"It's been important to us to put in place a process that both can move quickly enough to be relevant policy-wise - because sometimes this information is only useful if you get it downgraded in a rapid fashion - but also does so rigorously enough that our intelligence partners are comfortable that what must be protected has been protected," he said.
How it's been used
Finer said sensitive, declassified and publicized intelligence — known in the White House as a strategic downgrade — has already been used to counter China's claims about a spy balloon that traveled across the continental United States earlier this year and to defuse a potential crisis in Mali due to Russia's Wagner Group.
"We were able to point to destabilizing activities that were not publicly known, that were underway, that helped us to avoid bad outcomes," he said.
President Joe Biden's decision to purposefully declassify and publicize sensitive intelligence, using it almost as a weapon against Russia in the run-up to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, has won praise from current and former intelligence officials.
"It's played a very effective role," CIA Director William Burns said of the tactic during a conference last September, adding, "I think it can continue to again, if we make it the exception, not the rule."
Finer, on Friday, acknowledged the multitude of risks but argued the process has been "refined over time" to centralize decision-making with the National Security Council staff and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
He also said the Biden administration's guidelines limit the use of downgraded intelligence to a select handful of situations, such as when civilian lives or infrastructure is at risk or to counter potentially damaging disinformation campaigns or false flag operations.
Finer said in the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the tactic has been used to dissuade other countries, such as China and North Korea, from providing lethal support to Moscow.
The Biden administration's guidelines also require that any strategic downgrades be accurate, be based on verifiable reporting, and be wielded as part of a broader plan that includes the use of diplomacy as well as security and economic assistance.
"It should always be in service of clear policy objectives," Finer said. "It's not like you just get a piece of very interesting information that could sort of damage one of your adversaries and you decide that could be embarrassing to them, let's put it out."
Most important, Finer said, there is no room for error.
"You've got to be right," he said, "because if you go out alarming the world that something terrible is going to happen and you have it wrong, it will be much harder to use the tool effectively the next time."