The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The renaissance of U.S. intelligence power

The U.S. intelligence community’s reputation experiences a bounce-back

U.S. intelligence officials appear on Capitol Hill on March 10. From left, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray; National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone; Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines; CIA Director William J. Burns and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Scott Berrier. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the fact that Ukraine is still standing after weeks of war, should force analysts to reconsider their assumptions. Perceptions of Russian military power and grand strategy have clearly been revised downward. Russia is still a great power, but its primary power asset turns out to be less potent than previously believed. The European Union, in contrast, seems to have found a new voice and a new sense of purpose in response to Russia’s invasion. The jury is still out on the effect of the conflict on China.

A reassessment of U.S. power and strategy also seems appropriate. On the one hand, the United States failed to deter Russia from invading Ukraine, which suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin perceived American power was on the wane. On the other hand, the potency of the post-invasion sanctions caught Russia (and other great powers) by surprise, suggesting a newfound appreciation for the durability of U.S. control over vital economic networks.

That, however, is not the aspect of U.S. power that requires the biggest rethink. The most surprising aspect of American power has been the accuracy and utility of the U.S. intelligence community.

To say that this is a surprise would be an understatement. The intelligence services have had a rough few decades. The George W. Bush administration infamously stovepiped intelligence in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The result was U.S. officials confidently proclaiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when it did not. That is the most notable intelligence failure of this century, but hardly the only one. The Arab Spring caught the intelligence community unawares, as did the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan.

Moving beyond analysis to information collection and operations, the picture hardly looked better. The CIA’s efforts to build up a rebel operation in Syria did not pan out. The National Security Agency was hacked. The politicization of intelligence during the Trump years led to the appointment of D-list clowns to run these agencies.

The past few months have seen a remarkable turnaround. Before the start of the war, the Biden administration demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to share intelligence with allies as a means of making its case and advancing U.S. interests. I can only guess how much pulling and hauling that took with the intelligence community, given their understandable obsession with protecting sources and methods. U.S. warnings proved prescient, however, so that decision bolstered U.S. credibility with allies and partners (including Ukraine).

U.S. intelligence during the war has also been extremely accurate and useful in real time. Clearly, U.S. officials are sharing information about the movement and disposition of Russian forces to Ukraine. One intelligence official described it to me as “very near real-time” intelligence sharing.

At a recent congressional hearing, the heads of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the NSA hinted at their intelligence successes. Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, characterized the sharing of intelligence between the United States and Ukraine as “revolutionary in terms of what we can do.” NSA Director Paul Nakasone testified that he had not seen a better sharing of accurate, timely and actionable intelligence in his 35 years of service.

The United States has also been willing to use its intelligence in diplomatic cables warning what China might be planning to do to assist Russia. What is interesting about this announcement is that only a few days later, E.U. officials made it clear that they were persuaded.

One can only speculate about what else is happening, but suffice it to say that the lack of much in the way of Russian cyberoperations hints at U.S. deterrence and defense capabilities in that area. As for more clandestine operations, I will be interested to see what we learn in the next decade.

The contrast with Russia’s intelligence services is revealing. Russian efforts to capture or kill Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have come to naught. The chatter among some Russia hands is that some Russian intelligence officials have helped tip off Ukrainian officials about possible intelligence operations. The Wall Street Journal’s Warren P. Strobel and Michael R. Gordon report that “recriminations and finger-pointing have begun within Russia’s spy and defense agencies.” This finger-pointing includes the house arrest of at least one intelligence official from the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, because “Mr. Putin may be blaming the FSB for failing to bring about the rapid collapse of the Ukrainian government that he had expected.”

It is commonly believed that autocracies excel at intelligence, while democracies display more dysfunction in this area. The war in Ukraine has scrambled those beliefs. The U.S. willingness to publicize and share information has paid off. The intelligent use of intelligence makes a difference in foreign affairs.