Biden’s approach to intelligence and how it impacts US policies on Ukraine

    James Lockhart and Christopher R Moran show how President Joe Biden’s approach to intelligence impacts US policies on Ukraine

    While the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to unfold, global leaders are planning their responses with the help of national intelligence, including the US President, Joe Biden.

    James Lockhart and Christopher R Moran’s new article in International Affairs, written before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, evaluates President Biden’s approach to intelligence over the last five decades. In this interview with Isabel Muttreja they contextualize his approach within US history and consider his response to the Russia’s offensive in Ukraine.

    What is Biden’s approach to intelligence?

    President Biden has a five-decade track record in intelligence affairs, in Congress and the White House. By assessing this record, we have identified his approach to intelligence and use this to predict how he will manage and use it. In our new article in International Affairs we argue that his approach to intelligence has remained constant, if evolving, over time. As President he will likely prioritize traditional tasks in collection, analysis, dissemination, and especially the production of strategic national intelligence centred on Russia and China, and he will continue to avidly consume the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), which includes intelligence information from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

    Within bureaucratic Washington, he will be a pro-intelligence president, backing the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the CIA), particularly in matters of secrecy and the prosecution of leakers. He will have deep reservations about authorizing paramilitary and covert operations, especially in the global South — which he has already demonstrated when he withdrew from Afghanistan, furthering the United States’ broader disengagement from the Middle East.

    How does Biden’s approach to intelligence compare with his predecessors?

    There have been two competing tendencies in the American approach to intelligence since 1947. On the one hand, there are people in government and the intelligence community who regard intelligence as a warfighting activity. Beginning under the leadership of Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Allen Dulles, who oversaw the creation of a Clandestine Service primarily concerned with covert action in the 1950s, continuing through DCI Bill Casey, who supervised secret interventions in central America and Afghanistan in the 1980s, and culminating in the post-9/11 shift to hunting, detaining, or interrogating terrorists in the 2000s, there have been influential constituencies in Washington that privilege the support of warfighting and covert operations over the production of strategic national intelligence (this represents preferences and priorities; we do not suggest that it was ever an exclusive choice). Since 9/11, collectors and even analysts have focused their work almost wholly on tracking terrorists, as dramatized in the film Zero Dark Thirty.

    On the other hand, there are those in government and the community who see intelligence as a more passive and long-term, collection, analysis, and reporting activity. President Harry Truman, and many within his inner circle, like Rear Admiral Sidney Souers and DCI Walter Bedell Smith, reified the intelligence community primarily to produce strategic national intelligence — particularly what became the PDB, which Truman unofficially called ‘my newspaper,’ in the 1950s. As Souers phrased it, the purpose of intelligence was to keep presidents ‘well informed of all that was going on in the outside world.’

    Biden’s views have long been aligned with Truman and Souers’s, and his intelligence community is continuing to move in this direction. Last October, the CIA created the China Mission Center. And, in recent days, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the importance of profiles of national leaders has returned to the forefront of the CIA’s output, as the community attempts to determine President Vladimir Putin’s state of mind and intentions, especially concerning his apparent threats to use nuclear weapons.

    How is Biden’s approach to intelligence different from former President Donald Trump’s?

    Biden and Trump are as Yin to Yang in their approach to intelligence.

    The most salient difference between Biden and his predecessor lies in their instincts toward, trust in, and general relations with the CIA and the intelligence community. Our article is explicit on this point. Starkly contrasting with Biden, Trump treated the community as if it were part of a deep-state conspiracy determined to wreck his administration. When the community found that Putin had intervened in the election of 2016, Trump openly sided with Putin over his spy chiefs. On social media, Trump compared intelligence officers to Nazis and placed “intelligence” in quotation marks, signalling his contempt for it. In media interviews, he hinted that he was not reading the PDB because he was, after all, “a really smart guy.” These actions did much to undermine morale within the intelligence community. By contrast, to date, Biden has spoken in glowing terms about the 18 agencies and departments that make up this sprawling community.

    Trump blurred the line between politics and intelligence, something Biden has claimed will never happen on his watch. Biden has been clear that under his leadership that there will be no politicization of intelligence reporting. He remains determined to keep partisan politics and his spy chiefs apart.

    In the lead up to the Russian offensive in Ukraine Biden was very vocal about the imminent threat, more so than other leaders. Why was this?

    When Biden addressed the officers and staff of the ODNI in July 2021, he named Russia and China his highest priorities in national security, referring to them as ‘possible mortal competitors.’ He reiterated this in his State of the Union, earlier this month. He did not discuss terrorism or the Middle East but rather Russian aggression against Ukraine and a global struggle of freedom versus dictators and tyranny. He is the first president since Ronald Reagan to raise these twentieth-century themes in such a major speech, reflecting the waning of the war on terrorism and the waxing and resurgence of twentieth-century, great-power conflict over world order — or the return of history. These represent his main concerns in crafting the security posture of the US.

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    What sort of intelligence is being produced in the US around the Ukraine situation and how is it being used?

    In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Biden and the Department of State released a great deal of intelligence, including raw overhead imagery showing the position of Russian forces vis-à-vis the Ukrainian border, to publicize Putin’s plans in the hopes of complicating or deterring them. The effect of these measures, however they might have forced Putin to alter his strategy, cannot be evaluated yet.

    We can infer from press coverage that Biden and the intelligence community are prioritizing reports and estimates of Russian strategies and intentions, Moscow’s troop dispositions and movements, and leadership profiles of Putin — and that the administration is sharing much of this with the government of Ukraine. All of this should be familiar to American security and intelligence services, whose institutional memories date back to the Cold War when it was a more common feature of their day-to-day duties. At the same time, Biden will probably leverage the power of what he has called ‘over-the-horizon’ intelligence capabilities, which will almost certainly include unattributable, offensive cyber warfare.

    One of the striking things about the conflict in Ukraine is that Biden does not have a monopoly on prized intelligence. Take, for example, the images of Putin’s 40km convoy of tanks and other military vehicles descending on Kyiv. Anyone can see them on Google Earth. With the proliferation of commercial satellites and social media, there is an open-source intelligence revolution taking place, making us all to some extent ‘intelligence producers.’

    Will the invasion of Ukraine change relations within NATO?

    As Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the invasion does not directly test the alliance. Yet as the conflict continues to unfold, two imperatives seem to be crystallizing: First, Biden and the United States’ partners in NATO are trying to keep the war from escalating into a larger conflict between Russia and NATO. This was expanded upon by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on 4 March when he explained why the administration had ruled out establishing a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace.

    Second, Putin seems to have badly miscalculated the impact of his move. As of the time of this interview, shifts in government and public attitudes about joining NATO was becoming more favourable than ever in Sweden and Finland, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz committed the government of Germany to increase its military spending to more than 2 percent of its economic output — all in response to Putin’s actions in Ukraine.

    So, after the dust settles on this conflict, the net result may be that Putin’s aggression, counterproductively, has enlarged and strengthened NATO while urgently reminding its members why the alliance remains not only pertinent but imperative in the twenty-first century. This could be the birth of NATO 2.0.

    Will Biden go to war?

    Biden will not choose to go to war with Russia over Ukraine, but he and NATO might be drawn into it if Putin further miscalculates or if the invasion grows into a larger fight. Any of this should be expected as the normal chaos and uncertainty of war. Meanwhile, Biden will not likely rule out low-threshold covert support — for instance, arming and training Ukrainian insurgents, in cooperation with the legitimate government of Ukraine or perhaps a government-in-exile, behind Russian lines. He advocated just for that in the case of backing Bosnians against Serbians as a senator in the 1990s.

    Neither should we rule out of the possibility that Biden will look to make life more difficult for Putin by quietly stirring up trouble for the Russian leader elsewhere in the world. The last thing Moscow needs right now is a request for the Kremlin’s backing of an embattled ally like one of its central Asian neighbors, Syria, or Venezuela. There is a lot that the US could do — covertly — to destabilize these regimes, make that happen, and thereby give Putin more to think about than his objectives in Kyiv. It would be a way of bloodying the dictator’s nose, without being openly seen to have thrown any punches.

    Although Biden’s track record suggests that he will be averse to such intelligence activities, there will be people in government and in the intelligence community’s warfighting tradition who might propose this as an attractive alternative to the more limited options of diplomacy or all-out war.


    Evarist Chahali

    Evarist Chahali

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