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Official Public Intelligence Disclosure (OPID): When states publish intelligence


 

Official Public Intelligence Disclosure (OPID) refers to the authorized publication of intelligence data, which has been collected on foreign actors and international security matters. Traditionally, intelligence work has always revolved around secrecy, and exposure of intelligence has been perceived as damaging to operations. However, in recent years, there has been an increase in governments deliberately publishing intelligence for strategic purposes. Particularly, the Israeli intelligence community has entered the public sphere, where its members regularly report to the media about operations, capabilities, and intelligence data. Another example is the Russo-Ukrainian war, with which the emergence of OPID has become even more apparent to the international community. For instance, before the Russian invasion, the Biden administration decided to disclose previously classified information on the moves of Russian troops toward the Ukrainian border as an attempt to disrupt Russia’s planning. Despite the potential benefits, there are also risks involved. However, certain practices can be implemented to optimally balance secrecy and disclosure to minimize the damages while maximizing the gains of OPID.

One of the benefits of OPID is that it strengthens democratic values. Periodical public disclosure of intelligence enables transparency and accountability. For instance, the US and UK governments publish written intelligence assessments. While these democratic values are viewed as incompatible with the secrecy surrounding intelligence operations, there have been efforts to reconcile them. A possible solution would be to normalize investigations of intelligence episodes afterward, protecting clandestine operations in real-time while also instilling in operatives the importance of responsibility.

Another benefit is that it can be weaponized or used as a coercive instrument. Revealing the clandestine operations of an adversary to the public can disrupt its plans, showing the strategic value of OPID. For instance, Israel is waging a campaign against Hezbollah by disclosing the location of facilities where they are manufacturing precision-guided missiles. Due to this intelligence disclosure, Hezbollah is forced to move the missiles to other locations, causing delays in the whole project. As previously mentioned, this coercive disclosure has also been used by the United States to counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, attempting to disrupt its plans by removing the surprise element. Tactically, it also helped undermine Russia’s confidence, presumably causing internal doubt regarding a potential intelligence breach and creating distrust in the Russian leadership.

A third benefit is that it can be used for political or diplomatic purposes. Releasing intelligence at the proper time can influence public opinion and decision-making. For instance, in 2018, the Mossad published documents stolen from the Iranian nuclear archive, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later presented to then-US President Donald Trump. This convinced him to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal, in which Iran agreed to reduce its nuclear facilities in order to terminate nuclear-related sanctions.

Nevertheless, OPID also comes with risks such as the endangerment of sources and operations. After an intelligence disclosure, the adversary would be expected to try to close the breach. In turn, this could impede future intelligence operations, as the intelligence agency will most likely not be able to rely on the same source for information anymore. Additionally, future sources might be deterred from releasing information, fearing that the potential disclosure could endanger their life.

Another risk is that it could weaken the deterrence of the adversary. For instance, prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the released intelligence about the Russian military build-up did not prevent the war. In general, if the adversary is not negatively affected or diplomatic or military action has not been taken as a result of the disclosure, this could be interpreted as restraint from taking further action. In fact, it could achieve the opposite effect by being perceived as less threatening due to the decreased uncertainty about the disclosing party’s level of knowledge. Additionally, it could harm the disclosing party’s own reputation, as disclosure may be perceived as negligence by the public.

A third risk is that it can be manipulated to serve specific political purposes, which has been previously mentioned as a benefit. However, it is a risk when politicians attempt to advance their individual interests, claiming it serves national security. For instance, in 2019, Prime Minister Netanyahu released information about Iranian nuclear sites one week before the second round of elections. In general, the increasing use of OPID could lead to political considerations interfering with the work of intelligence agencies. Politicians could request the disclosure of intelligence information which could help advance their own interests, for instance, supporting a policy. Consequently, this could lead to intelligence officials manipulating the intelligence information to appear more “satisfactory”, which could undermine the reliability of intelligence organizations.

There are numerous practices that can be implemented to optimally balance secrecy and disclosure. Firstly, it is important to maintain checks and balances between the unit that is in charge of protecting sources and assessing risks due to exposure and the unit that recommends information or operations for public disclosure. This could prevent the prioritization of disclosing intelligence for strategic purposes over source protection. Secondly, any public disclosure of intelligence should first be debated by all relevant actors, for instance, analysts, information security personnel, and spokespeople. This would allow them to share their thoughts on potential consequences and make conditions regarding how, what, and where the intelligence should be published. Thirdly, it is important to develop a framework for measuring the success of OPID in achieving a specific objective. Collecting and analyzing empirical data on the success of OPID in the past can facilitate future decision-making. In conclusion, a policy that balances the protection of sources and public disclosure is necessary to minimize the potential damage of OPID.

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