This week, the Trump administration wielded U.S. intelligence in heated international discussions — and as a result, will face a dilemma going forward. U.S. leaders cited new intelligence when accusing Russia of conducting unreported nuclear weapons tests, and when charging Iran with attacking oil tankers, firing rockets on a base in Iraq, and shooting missiles at U.S. drones.
But brandishing intelligence in diplomatic skirmishes isn’t a simple decision. Doing so often means leaders must either compromise future intelligence collection to make those claims credible, or protect intelligence sources and methods while jeopardizing others’ willingness to believe those claims.
U.S. presidents have repeatedly confronted this choice between credibility and caution. That’s heightened for the Trump White House, given Trump’s reputation for misleading and false statements, clashes with allies and reluctance to believe his own intelligence officials.
A look at the history of how intelligence has been used as a diplomatic weapon can reveal the difficult road ahead.
Go public to build support — or stay quiet to protect intelligence
Leaders are often tempted to make intelligence public to substantiate claims and win support. Doing so can help build a regional or global consensus on policy, boost domestic support or legitimize a decision to use force or levy sanctions.
Our own research examines the fundamental dilemma faced when using intelligence to market policy and affect diplomacy. Because intelligence relies on clandestine methods of collection, going public risks informing targets and enabling them to evade detection. Targets can ditch cellphones in favor of hand-delivered couriers or other means of communication; build new nuclear facilities underground to avoid aerial detection; or kill or imprison insiders who leak information.
While withholding details can protect future intelligence collection, omitting details makes it difficult for outsiders to understand how a country reached its conclusions. Because publicly disclosed intelligence usually comes with an agenda, skeptics at home and abroad are often unconvinced by a message of “trust us.”
Disclosing intelligence with enough details to persuade can therefore make it impossible to safeguard collection methods. This can be an especially sharp trade off for governments with a recent history of making misleading intelligence claims, as happened when the George W. Bush administration claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in 2003, or if, as with Trump, a leader has a reputation for rejecting inconvenient truths.
This week’s accusations show the difficult choice between credibility and caution
This week, the U.S. revealed the tension between credibility and protecting sources. Take recent claims about Russia’s nuclear testing. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency asserted that Russia had “conducted nuclear weapons tests that have created nuclear yield.” But as Paul Sonne here at The Washington Post reported, the claim “didn’t give any details about the alleged tests or release any evidence backing the accusation.” That’s especially notable because experts have long debated how to classify low-yield nuclear testing. With no proof, Russia’s Foreign Ministry dismissed these claims by calling them a “crude provocation” that is “absolutely groundless.”
In contrast, the administration made public some raw intelligence about Iran. After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo linked Iran to attacks on oil tankers, the U.S. military released a declassified surveillance video that appears to show an Iranian vessel removing an unexploded mine from one of the ships. Yet ambiguity about how to interpret the video, and a lack of corroborating evidence that it was doing what the U.S. claimed, has led even allies to question it. In contrast, the Pentagon’s claims about Iran’s purported missile attacks on U.S. drones featured “no video or other evidence,” as the Los Angeles Times reported.
This dilemma is not new. In the lead-up to the 1960 presidential election, President Eisenhower chose not to reveal intelligence derived from U-2 overhead imagery to show that there was no “missile gap” — the believed superiority in number and capability of the USSR’s missiles relative to the U.S. — allowing American public anxiety about a Russian threat to persist. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration revealed some aerial photographs of Soviet military sites in Latin America — but lacking information about where and how those photographs were taken, Democrats claimed that they were selectively declassified for political purposes.
Perhaps most famous is John F. Kennedy’s decision to sacrifice future intelligence collection when he revealed extensive and conclusive raw intelligence, details and all, during the Cuban missile crisis. The famous U-2 images of Soviet missiles on the island did considerable damage to intelligence sources and methods, as scholars have learned from since-declassified memos.
U.S. leaders are likely sharing more detailed intelligence behind closed doors with close allies. Nevertheless, going public without disclosing details caused serious credibility problems, bringing highly unusual public complaints from U.S. allies in the Middle East, Germany and Japan.
Is this time different?
As with the Reagan administration, this White House appears to be reluctant to wield intelligence to help highlight bad actions, apply pressure, and raise the stakes.
Yet Trump’s approach to this dilemma is different from that of past presidents in ways that matter. He has had highly visible and acrimonious clashes with intelligence agencies. Since early this year, major news outlets like The Post and the Wall Street Journal have been reporting that the agencies are withholding intelligence conclusions or details from the president. Trump’s frequent attacks on “fake news” and his disagreements with allies will likely continue to exacerbate questions about intelligence assessments.
Technology may further sharpen the dilemma of when to go public with intelligence. The New York Times reporting last week that the U.S. had cyber-penetrated Russia’s power grid illustrates this. Revealing cyber capabilities can quickly render them unusable and easily exploited by others. Preventing such exposure may be why intelligence officials withheld details even from President Trump because of his history of inadvertent disclosures.
These issues may limit Trump’s options about whether to reveal more. Selective intelligence sharing with allies may be more difficult for Trump than for other presidents. And if intelligence officials don’t trust Trump enough to share intelligence details with him, the White House may increasingly lack the option of disclosing them in the first place.
But the dilemma of when to go public with intelligence information long predated Trump — and will continue to confront presidents long after he leaves the Oval Office.
Allison Carnegie (@AllieCarnegie) is an associate professor of political science at Columbia University and author of “Power Plays: How International Institutions Reshape Coercive Diplomacy” (Cambridge University Press 2015)
Austin Carson (@CarsonAust) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of “Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics” (Princeton University Press 2018).