Intelligence and Diplomacy: A New Model for a New Era
Good afternoon. It’s great to be here. I want to thank Suzanne, Brad and the entire Cipher Brief team for organizing this event and for enriching the conversation in Washington with objective, apolitical analysis in the daily newsletter – of which I’m a subscriber. Thank you.
Before I begin, let me say the United States unequivocally condemns the terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israel. The images of attacks on Israeli civilians and civilian communities are devastating. As President Biden said yesterday, the United States stands with the government and people of Israel in the face of terrorist violence. We extend our condolences to the Israeli people and are committed to sustaining close cooperation with our Israeli partners.
At its core, diplomacy is about people. And so, I’d like to begin with a story.
On the night of February 22, 2022, I joined Secretary Blinken from a secure room in the State Department for a National Security Council Principals Committee meeting on Ukraine. As is custom, the meeting began with a brief from the Intelligence Community (IC). Unlike most meetings, this one began with a stark warning: Russia was about to commence a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
As you know, in the preceding months, the U.S. Intelligence Community, at the direction of President Biden and under the leadership of Director of National Intelligence Haines, had decided to strategically downgrade intelligence to warn Ukraine and the world about Russia’s plans. So in keeping with the President’s guidance, Principals decided we needed to share the imminent threat information with the Ukrainians at once.
Now, it just so happened that Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba was at the State Department that evening meeting with Secretary Blinken. Recognizing the Foreign Minister was still in the building, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, DNI Haines, and Secretary Blinken asked that I depart the meeting and work with the IC to craft language to share with the Ukrainians. In 15 minutes, the DNI’s deputy for analysis, Morgan Muir, and I received clearance from the IC for talking points.
With downgraded language in hand, I rushed down the hall to find the Foreign Minister and share with him the intelligence. I’ll never forget the look of despair on his face. Immediately after the briefing, he called President Zelenskyy. It was time to prepare their nation for war.
For me, that episode symbolized the remarkable evolution—in scale, scope and speed—of intelligence support to diplomacy. Strategic, authorized disclosures are not new. But the central role it played in enabling the US and allied response to Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine was extraordinary. Naturally, this success has raised significant interest within the State Department—and the U.S. Government more broadly—regarding its potential applications to other diplomatic challenges we face around the world. It has also raised expectations among allies and partners, the media, and the public.
So today, I want to talk about the lessons we have drawn and describe how the State Department is integrating intelligence diplomacy into its work – as well as the rigor, discipline and care we’re applying to maximize benefits while guarding against misuse or abuse.
Recently, “intelligence diplomacy” has garnered considerable public and private attention. Yet, there’s no commonly accepted definition of the term. Some view it narrowly as traditional intelligence sharing with foreign partners. Others view it as public diplomacy on steroids. When we talk about intelligence diplomacy at the State Department, we mean that intelligence can serve as a key tool to inform, drive convergence in approaches and outlooks, enable common actions, and deprive adversaries of advantage.
Of course, using intelligence to advance such aims—in essence, to support diplomatic objectives—is familiar. In October 1962, the United States presented declassified intelligence to the UN Security Council exposing the presence of Soviet offensive missiles in Cuba. In April 2017, to garner support for strikes against Syria, the White House declassified intelligence detailing the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons on its own people. And notably, in 2003, the Bush administration declassified intelligence, which turned out to be inaccurate, to make the case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Iraq exposed the high costs of misusing intelligence and sullied the reputation of the IC for a generation. We must never forget the lessons of Iraq and the dangers of engaging in intelligence diplomacy without sufficient process and oversight. But if done right, we have a chance today – building on the success in Russia-Ukraine – to shift the narrative, to lay an important foundation for the future of US diplomacy. We are determined not to miss this opportunity.
As we contemplate other applications for this tool, it’s worth reflecting on why it has been so successful in Russia-Ukraine.
First, leadership. As DNI Haines has noted, President Biden directed that the IC downgrade intelligence on Russian plans and intentions to level the information playing field – to ensure Ukraine, our allies and partners could see what we were seeing behind the scenes.
Second, the policy intent in this case was principled and clear – to prevent war. As Jake Sullivan noted from the White House in early 2022, “In the situation in Iraq, intelligence was used and deployed from this very podium to start a war. We are trying to stop a war, to prevent a war, to avert a war.” Secretary Blinken delivered a similar message in the UN Security Council chamber just days before the invasion.
Third, our intelligence was specific, consistent, and accurate.
And fourth, the rise of open-source tools, especially commercial imagery, allowed the IC to present credible evidence to the public without jeopardizing sources and methods.
Exposing Russia’s plans did not avert war. But it was a watershed moment for intelligence diplomacy – providing timely warning and enabling Ukraine to defend itself; mobilizing allies and partners to support Ukraine; undermining Russian disinformation; informing the public; and restoring the IC’s credibility – and that of the United States – in the eyes of the world. If the Iraq war highlighted the risks of intelligence diplomacy, Russia-Ukraine has shown us the opportunities.
In the United States, the relationship between intelligence and diplomacy is as old as our Republic. Intelligence has long been a valuable card in the diplomat’s hand – where persuasion and influence are central to delivering policy outcomes. This is even more the case today, given the fast-changing information landscape, the rise of open-source intelligence, and the power of specific information to shape the perceptions and calculus of allies, partners, and publics.
These days, governments – and the intelligence agencies that support them – no longer have a monopoly on sensitive information or expertise. For diplomats, this places a premium on being able to integrate unique, credible, non-public information and analysis into diplomatic engagements. It’s one thing to share information or analysis with allies and partners in intelligence channels to influence or inform. That’s the bread and butter of intelligence cooperation around the world: intelligence agencies share with each other to inform, run operations, and strengthen partnerships. But very often, the intelligence stays in those channels. It’s quite another thing to use intelligence to support diplomacy – to shape perceptions, align views, or shift policy.
Last month, Secretary Blinken spoke about “The Power and Purpose of American Diplomacy in a New Era.” Central to American diplomacy in this new era will be working by, with, and through allies and partners. As he said in his remarks, “At the core of our strategy is re-engaging, revitalizing, and reimagining our greatest strategic asset: America’s alliances and partnerships.” Make no mistake: intelligence will play a key role in supporting these relationships; and these relationships are a crucial asset for our intelligence – giving us remarkable decision and operational advantages.
For these reasons, the State Department has stepped up efforts over the last two years to infuse diplomacy with intelligence, working closely with the IC and the NSC. Senior leaders now regularly seek out opportunities to deploy this tool because they have seen the value. The sheer volume of downgrade and declassification requests from the Department underscores this reality. In 2021, there were over 900 requests in the Department to downgrade or declassify intelligence. This year, we’re on pace to surpass more than 1200 requests – a little more than 20 requests per week.
The use of intelligence diplomacy at the State Department has also expanded far beyond the war in Ukraine. To give you a sense, let me share some recent examples.
- Earlier this year, downgraded and declassified intelligence was used publicly – and privately in diplomatic channels – to warn the PRC about the consequences of providing lethal weapons to Russia to aid its war in Ukraine.
- Recently, the State Department used downgraded intelligence as part of a larger effort to encourage a country that was considering importing Chinese military hardware in violation of bilateral agreements to change course.
- When it comes to human rights, the State Department has relied heavily on downgraded intelligence to engage with countries to prevent the proliferation of surveillance technologies to governments tied to human rights abuses.
The bottom line is this: As the lead agency responsible for American foreign policy, intelligence is increasingly vital to supporting – and enabling – the State Department’s mission.
And here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that our ability to use intelligence to empower diplomacy depends heavily on reauthorizing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which will expire at the end of this year unless Congress takes action to reauthorize it. As we’ve said previously, Section 702 doesn’t just help protect the United States from security threats; it’s vital to advancing and promoting U.S. diplomacy and interests in the world.
Going forward, the administration’s National Security Strategy and the National Intelligence Strategy both make clear that intelligence diplomacy will play a key role in an era of sharpened strategic competition – a tool to enhance our position relative to our adversaries, fact-check and push back on their narratives, and enable us to build the strongest possible coalitions. At the same time, our increasing use and interest in intelligence diplomacy raises profound questions about how to leverage this tool in a manner consistent with national security and our values.
Done right, we have an opportunity to embed this capability into the toolkit of current and future generations of diplomats to advance US interests. As Secretary Blinken said last year, “If we continue to hold ourselves to the highest standards of accuracy, credibility, transparency, I think we can leverage intelligence in new ways to support diplomacy.”
However, without guardrails, there is a risk that intelligence diplomacy could be misused or abused in the future. That’s why we owe our diplomats and policymakers clear guidance to inform decisions about whether, when, and how to use this tool responsibly while safeguarding our Nation’s secrets. In that connection, I want to outline the steps we’re taking at the State Department to embrace intelligence diplomacy with rigor, discipline, and care.
First, we’re establishing guiding principles to help inform requests to share or release intelligence to support diplomatic objectives. These eight core principles complement current IC disclosure policy, and include the following:
- Intelligence diplomacy should support a defined policy objective.
- It should be integrated with other elements of national power.
- It should prioritize engagement with allies and partners.
- It should be used to share new information that is not otherwise available through open sources.
- Any intelligence to be shared or publicly released should be credible and reliable.
- Intelligence diplomacy proposals should weigh the potential policy benefits with the risk to sources and methods.
- Downgraded or declassified intelligence should be explainable and easily communicated to its intended audience.
- Finally, requests to downgrade or declassify intelligence for diplomatic activities must be processed through established IC coordination channels.
In the coming weeks, we will codify these principles in formal guidance to our workforce.
Second, we’re using technology to streamline the process for diplomats to request downgraded or declassified intelligence and to make the tool more accessible online.
And third, we’re developing new training to educate our Chiefs of Mission and others about intelligence diplomacy and how to integrate this resource into their local efforts.
So that’s our approach to embracing intelligence diplomacy – developing clear guidelines and process to empower diplomats; leveraging technology; and educating the workforce to use this tool effectively and responsibly. Oversight – within the Department and the Intelligence Community – will be crucial, as will Congressional oversight.
As I return to that solemn night in February 2022, I’m reminded of how much the world has changed and how much the relationship between intelligence and diplomacy has evolved. At the State Department, intelligence is no longer viewed solely as an analytic resource, though that remains at the core of our work. Intelligence is increasingly viewed as a critical enabler to American diplomacy. And we’re confident that, with the right safeguards, process, and technology, intelligence diplomacy can play a critical role in securing America’s future.