CIA applies lessons from Iraq 'debacle' in information battle over Russian invasion of Ukraine

In February, amid Russia’s unprecedented military buildup on Ukraine’s borders — and the Biden administration’s equally unprecedented strategy of actively declassifying intelligence gathered about Russia’s intentions to invade its neighbor — national security adviser Jake Sullivan took a question at a White House press briefing about the credibility of the U.S. during the crisis.

How, asked a reporter, could the public trust the U.S. government’s claims about Russia’s intentions in Ukraine given how it had used faulty intelligence to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq?

Sullivan seemed to anticipate the query. There was “a fundamental distinction” between the disclosure of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War and with Ukraine and Russia today, answered Sullivan. “In the situation in Iraq, intelligence was used and deployed from this very podium to start a war,” Sullivan said, referring to the administration of former President George W. Bush. “We are trying to stop a war, to prevent a war, to avert a war.”

The U.S. would continue to operate “in good faith and share everything that we know to the best of our ability while protecting sources and methods,” said Sullivan.

As this interchange revealed, the use — and abuse — of intelligence to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq has cast a long shadow over U.S. politics, sowing distrust in America’s intelligence community and wider national security bureaucracy.

Jake Sullivan
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images) (Bloomberg via Getty Images)

And, fairly or not, no U.S. spy agency was more closely associated with Iraq-related intelligence failures than the CIA. Former CIA Director George Tenet’s reported characterization that the evidence showing Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) was a “slam dunk” is now immortalized in American politics as a kind of shorthand for hubris and the capacity for official deception.

Though Iraq still lingers in the American consciousness, the CIA finds itself in a very different, and more salutary, position today regarding the intelligence battle over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Current U.S. strategy has also placed great weight on the intelligence community. “It’s the first time since Iraq and WMDs where the public has been asked to trust the agency during a major foreign policy crisis,” said Jeff Asher, a former CIA analyst.

Indeed, unlike with weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the agency’s and the wider intelligence community’s analysis about Russia’s intentions to attack Ukraine (though not the reported prognostications of a quick rout of Kyiv) have been widely borne out. And its warnings about Russian “false flag” operations being used as a pretext for war look prescient, as Russia continues to float baseless theories about a potential Ukrainian chemical weapons attack.

The lessons that led to today’s successes were hard-won, experts told Yahoo News. Over the years, the agency’s analytic corps absorbed the failures surrounding 9/11 and the “debacle” of the Iraq War, said Asher, the former CIA analyst. In fact, studying how the CIA went astray in its analysis of both events is now used as a training module for agency analysts, he says. “Those lessons are sort of built into the analytic culture” at the CIA now, Asher said.

U.S. Army Sgt. Mark Phiffer stands guard in Iraq
A U.S. Army sergeant stands guard near a burning oil well in Southern Iraq in 2003. (Arlo K. Abrahamson/U.S. Navy/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

The intelligence community has “had a generation to think about those things, and what went wrong,” Asher said.

The January 2017 intelligence community assessment detailing Russia’s covert intervention in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was another watershed moment in the CIA’s public-facing intelligence efforts, Asher said, and one where its analysts fundamentally “got it right.”

But the Obama administration, potentially worried about domestic political fallout and the sensitivity of the sourcing, failed to fully exploit this now public information surrounding Russia’s interference campaign — a lesson the Biden administration seems to have learned with its novel declassification strategy regarding Ukraine, according to Asher.

Agency leadership has also been key in the rebound, with CIA Director Bill Burns — a former career diplomat and Russia hand who has helped craft the Biden administration’s disclosure strategy — unusually well-tailored for the current moment, say experts. In a nod to Burns’s diplomatic acumen, President Biden even sent the CIA director, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, to Russia in November to try and deter Moscow from invading.

Burns’s thinking about Russia’s designs on Ukraine was influenced by his time in Moscow, as was his exposure to Russian President Vladimir Putin's grievance-focused worldview. “Understanding the Kremlin was as much about psychology as geopolitics,” wrote Burns in his 2019 memoir.

Burns strongly endorsed the administration’s declassification strategy in a recent appearance before Congress. “In all the years I spent as a career diplomat, I saw too many instances in which we lost information wars with the Russians,” he said.

A residential apartment complex that was heavily damaged by a Russian attack
An apartment complex in Kyiv, Ukraine, that was heavily damaged by a Russian attack, March 18. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

“I think we have had a great deal of effect in disrupting their tactics and their calculations and demonstrating to the entire world that this is a premeditated and unprovoked aggression built on a body of lies and false narratives. So this is one information war that I think Putin is losing,” said Burns.

Still, unsurprisingly for a spy service, many of the CIA’s contributions on Ukraine have been decidedly less public. The agency has developed a close intelligence-sharing relationship with its Ukrainian counterpart, say former U.S. intelligence officials. The CIA also made a series of covert moves that have helped prepare the Ukrainian security services for the current crisis. Shortly after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the agency initiated secret paramilitary training programsfor Ukrainian special operations personnel in the U.S. and on Ukraine’s former eastern front. These secret initiatives helped teach forces loyal to Kyiv the skills that have enabled it to mount an unexpectedly fierce resistance to the Russian onslaught, say former officials.

Secret programs notwithstanding, the major revelation of the Ukraine crisis may be how the rapid, ostensibly good-faith dissemination of intelligence can color public discourse and debate during times of intense international stress — and even function as a type of public diplomacy.

Ukraine has shown how “the IC [intelligence community] can effectively harness the speed of 21st century information sharing to provide effective messaging in support of U.S. foreign policy objectives,” said Asher.


What happened this week in Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.