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Russia's war in Ukraine: What impact did releasing declassified intel about Russia's military plans have?

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Brett Holmgren, Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research (INR) at the U.S. Department of State, about the unique history of his agency, its future, and how its analysts work to equip diplomats with key intelligence today. Holmgren and Morell discuss the Biden administration's unprecedented strategy of publicly releasing declassified intelligence about Russia's military plans in Ukraine, the risks it entails, and how it may have solidified Western support for rigorous sanctions. They also discuss China's support for Russia and other key global challenges, including the elusive nuclear deal with Iran and democratic backsliding in Latin America. 

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On releasing declassified intel: "I can just tell you from the diplomatic side of things, the ability to downgrade to a secret/red level or in some cases at the unclassified level was incredibly powerful, especially in the run-up to the invasion, to engage with countries, especially in Europe, that may have been on the fence at the time or skeptical of the intelligence reporting. The ability to share that information — in some cases in near-real time — really provided a common situational awareness across the coalition that we're trying to mobilize to push back against Russian aggression."  

China's support for Russia: "I do think we will probably look back on this as a turning point in PRC-Russian relations, notwithstanding the historical differences that the two countries have had... [W]e do think that the PRC is unsettled, and I think they may be having a little buyer's remorse in terms of what they signed up for with the Russians. But, you know, the world will be watching. The ball's in China's court to see, you know, which nations stand up for self-determination and sovereignty and which ones don't." 

Putin's strategic errors: "Putin has achieved exactly the opposite of what he set out to do, which is to further divide NATO and the West, has had the opposite effect. It has unified the alliance. And it's one of the big misjudgments that Putin made heading into this conflict. He overestimated the strength of his military. He underestimated the willpower of the Ukrainian people. And he underestimated the resolve and the unity of the West in the wake of this invasion."

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MICHAEL MORELL: Brett, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It's it's great to have you with us.

BRETT HOLMGREN: It's great to be here, Michael. Thank you.

MICHAEL MORELL: You're welcome. Lots to talk about. Lots going on in the world. But before we get to that, I'd like to take just a few minutes to talk about the organization that you run at the State Department, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

And I'm wondering if we can start, Brett, by you just giving us a sense about what the bureau that you run at State does on a day to day basis, and how does it fit into the broader intelligence community?

BRETT HOLMGREN: Sure. Thank you for that question, Michael. So as some of your listeners will know, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, otherwise known as INR, is in fact the oldest civilian intelligence agency in the United States. We are celebrating our 76th anniversary this year. We are a direct descendant of the Office of Strategic Services, along with our brothers and sisters from the CIA.

So, you know, history is important in this context because I think some of the legacy that has defined INR throughout the last 76 years, deep expertise in independence, always speaking truth to power, is that that legacy persists to this day. And a lot of it stems from its roots in the process where you had a large number of academics and social scientists and geographers and economists who really - they were known as the armchair division of the U.S. military during World War II. And that same sense of pride, I think, carries through to this day.

We are one of the three all=source analytic components in the intelligence community. But we have a unique mission. And whereas CIA, as you know, their primary customer is the President and other senior national policymakers, the Defense Intelligence Agency their primary customer is the Secretary of Defense and the war fighter, for INR, our primary customer is the Secretary of State and U.S. diplomats.

And so, we are on a mission to deliver and coordinate timely, objective intelligence to advance U.S. diplomacy. And I think everyone in our organization takes that responsibility incredibly seriously.

MICHAEL MORELL: I just want to make sure that everybody understood what you said: INR is one year older than the Central Intelligence Agency. I think that's important for folks to know.

So Brett, your focus on serving diplomats. Does that mean that that you focus on slightly different things than, say, CIA or DIA? Does it mean you focus more on understanding foreign leaders, more on understanding the decision-making process in foreign countries? Is there a is there a slight difference at the end of the day?

BRETT HOLMGREN: You know, I would say it depends, Michael. And a lot of this is driven by, you know, the priorities of the of the department. So obviously, for INR, you know, we are focused on supporting diplomatic engagements and providing unique insights to our diplomats overseas, as well as the Secretary of State. And so in a lot of cases, some of the analysis that CIA, DIA, the NIC and others do, it may be similar to what INR produces.

But I think what differentiates us is that this is unique in the intelligence community, is that the proximity that INR has to policymakers is an incredible opportunity for us because our policymakers are literally on the same floor as INR analysts here at the State Department. What that allows us is the opportunity, I think, to anticipate policy questions probably a little bit quicker than other parts of the intelligence community, and therefore, to tailor some of the analytic products, briefings, but also other kind of operational support that we provide. We're able to do that in a way that I think is probably a little faster and a little more agile than other parts of the intel community.

MICHAEL MORELL: So I'm wondering if some of the countries or functional issues might be a little different than than other parts of the community. And what comes to mind here is I saw that the Department recently determined that the Burmese government committed genocide against the Rohingya people. And I saw that INR played a major role in that determination. And that's not something you see other agencies do.

BRETT HOLMGREN: That's right, Michael. I mean, for almost 30 years, INR has been an executive agent on behalf of the intelligence community, working with international tribunals, national commissions, other accountability mechanisms to provide information, intelligence information, to the appropriate authorities so that they can make their own determinations.

Our team here, I know, is incredibly proud of the work that they did to surface the information. They spoke with victims in Burma to get gather firsthand accounts of the atrocities. And provided that information here in the Department to support the recent determinations that you mentioned.

So in the current context, in the context of Russia, Ukraine, it's something that INR and the entire intelligence community is obviously very focused on given the horrific scenes that we're witnessing every day in Ukraine.
And Michael, you are someone who was very close to the counterterrorism mission. Obviously, I was as well. And, you know, frankly, some of the scenes that we're witnessing out in Ukraine with that horrific airstrike on the train station, some of this is reminiscent of attacks you would see in the wake of bombings by ISIS and Al-Qaeda. So it's really horrific.

And thanks to DNI Haines' leadership immediately after the invasion in February, the intelligence community quickly mobilized to already begin establishing mechanisms and processes to collect, analyze, identify, report, and importantly, to preserve information from intelligence sources that could be used to support future accountability mechanisms with respect to the atrocious acts that have been committed in Ukraine.

MICHAEL MORELL: And that'll go into some sort of policy process at some point.


MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. I also want to ask, Brett, about INR's new strategic plan, which you guys just put out. It's actually available on the Internet. Looks very cool, I must say. I just want to ask, what are the big changes that that you'd like to see in INR going forward?

BRETT HOLMGREN: Sure. Thanks for that question, Michael. And very proud of the work that our entire team has done in the last several months to inform the strategic plan. The first thing I would note is that I was building on a strong foundation. I've been in INR about seven months this week, and so there's an incredible foundation and just a bunch of work that had already been done.

But I'm a firm believer in the principle of continuous improvement, and that you always, as an organization, you always have to continue to evolve, to adapt to new threats and challenges and take advantage of opportunities in the world.

And so I spent the first couple of months listening. We convened focus groups. We met with stakeholders inside and outside of the bureau and inside and outside of the State Department. And I kicked off a series of task force reviews that were really focused on trying to identify what those core capabilities in INR are that would separate us from the rest of the intelligence community such that, if INR disappeared from the face of the earth one day, people would really recognize a void in the intel community.

And so the focus was on really trying to identify what those things are that make us unique. And all of that contributed to the development of the strategic plan. And we refined our mission statement; we have a new vision statement, which is, "Intelligence empowering diplomacy," and then set forth five strategic priorities.

I won't go through all of them. But I do want to focus on the first - I think will resonate with you - which is elevating the importance of strategic analysis and redefining how we provide intelligence support to diplomacy. That's a critically important function and service to provide to policymakers in this 24-7 news cycle where there's a constant need to respond to questions and tasking from policymakers.

What we want to focus on here at INR over the next few years is really returning to our roots and providing that deep expertise. And so to help uncover opportunities, vulnerabilities in some of our adversaries and competitors around the world. So that means less - in some respects - probably less daily production, but a larger volume of what I would call strategic assessments that really help provide some decision advantage for our policymakers.'

MICHAEL MORELL: Get them out of their inbox to some extent.

BRETT HOLMGREN: Exactly. The second thing that we're really leaning into is in the technology side of things. And I think it's probably one area that INR had been a little under-invested in when I arrived. And we've got a lot of work to do.

But there are two components to our technology agenda. One is undertaking a digital transformation so that we can empower the business and our analysts with the tools and resources they need. So this includes - we've got to migrate to the cloud so we can be more agile, take advantage of some of the capabilities that the rest of the intelligence community has in the cloud, providing more modern content delivery platforms for our products and services.

And then the second component of the technology agenda is around strengthening our cybersecurity internally to make sure that we're defending and safeguarding the information that INR is responsible for protecting, since we own and manage and operate the top secret CIA fabric for the Department of State.

So those are two really big areas that that we're already putting a lot of time and resources into. And I'm quite excited about seeing where where things head in both of these areas.

MICHAEL MORELL: Well, good luck with both of those, because they're they're both really important. And you're not the only one who's underinvested in technology over the years. The entire community has. And they have a lot of catching up to do. So good luck on both of those.

So I'd love to shift a little bit to what's going on in the world. And I just want to be upfront with my listeners that I'm not going to ask you policy questions - you know, what should the U.S. do about X, Y or Z - because you're an intelligence officer.

And for those folks who might not understand the context around what I just said, Brett, if you can just quickly explain to people the bright red line in the United States between intelligence and policy.

BRETT HOLMGREN: Sure. And as someone who began their career as an analyst in the intelligence community, as you know well, Michael, this is a bright red line that is drawn the first day you walk into the community as an analyst.

And analysts are there to support policymakers with the best objective information and intelligence available. I've also been a policymaker, and so I think that has been useful for me because I understand both the opportunities and the limitations of what the intel community can provide.

So I appreciate now that I am in an intelligence role, I appreciate your awareness of the importance of that issue.

MICHAEL MORELL: Okay. No questions in terms of, 'Should we have a no fly zone over Ukraine?' Okay.
No surprise, Brett, I'd like to start with Ukraine and I'd like to focus on some questions that I don't think have classified answers, but that I really don't see as well-covered in the media as I would like. And the first one is, what impact are the sanctions having inside of Russia? Has life changed in any fundamental way for Russians living in big cities, smaller cities, or even in rural areas? What's been the impact so far?

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. Thank you for that question, Michael. Let me just say two things, if I can, about what we're seeing in Ukraine just at the top.

The first is that this is truly a historic moment for Europe and I think an inflection point for the entire world. And I don't say that lightly, but what we're seeing on the ground is Russia trying to upend this rules-based international order that generations of Americans have fought to deliver and to sustain. And I just think sometimes outside of Washington, it's hard for people to appreciate the consequences of what we're seeing on the ground in Ukraine. And that's why the United States and our Western partners and allies are so invested in ensuring that this results in strategic failure for Putin.

The second point I want to make is really to compliment the intel community on the work that they did in the run-up to the invasion, providing the strategic indications and warning of Russia's plans and intentions, which was absolutely vital.

And I've seen it on the diplomatic side in allowing the United States to mobilize with our partners and allies, a unified response immediately after the invasion. So I really think, Michael, that history will reflect that the work the intel community did will be right up there, along with uncovering ballistic missiles in Cuba in 1962 and finding bin Laden in 2011. I think this will be one of the great achievements for the intel community.

MICHAEL MORELL: Was there a couple of things, though, that that we could have done slightly better at, in terms of understanding how tough of a fight this was going to be for Russia at the end of the day?
I mean, my sense was that the U.S. was saying that the Russians were going to be able to get to Kyiv pretty quickly.

BRETT HOLMGREN: Well, look, again, Michael, as you know, the intel community, we always want to learn, we always want to internalize opportunities from prior experiences. In this case, I think if you just look at the sheer numbers on paper of Russia's personnel, military forces, their capabilities compared to the Ukrainians, there's no distinction there. I mean, it's an incredible gap between the two.

And I think a lot of our analysts - I talk to our analysts about this regularly - the lens that they had looking at Russia's military was through a more traditional, conventional lens. But what we've seen with the Ukrainians, due to the courage and an incredible willpower to resist this invasion, is, frankly a bit of a surprise not only for the intel community, but I think for a lot of folks.

And it's a real credit, again, to the Ukrainian people, their ability to resist and and really to push the Russians back immediately in the first phase of this operation. So I think there's an opportunity for us to kind of take a look back at what happened.

At the same time, one thing our analysts have talked about is that the military, the kind of the tactical failure, frankly, by the Russian military in the first phase of their campaign. This is something that will be studied by analysts at the intel community for years to come. This will be a case study of just how ill-prepared the Russians were on a tactical and a strategic level for the first phase of this operation.

MICHAEL MORELL: I think that's right. And I think the other thing is that at the end of the day, the will to fight is so much more important than the ability to fight.

BRETT HOLMGREN: I couldn't agree more.

MICHAEL MORELL: Brett, I want to ask about the administration's use of intelligence to help fight the information war against Russia. I'm very supportive of that. And I think, going forward, it's likely to become a powerful and regular tool of foreign policy. I think we've really stumbled on to something here.

And I want to ask you two things. First, what impact do you think that public sharing of intelligence had has had so far on the conflict?

BRETT HOLMGREN: Well, Michael, again, as someone who serves in the intel community, this has been a paradigm shift, as you can imagine, for the workforce of the intel community to declassify and to downgrade intelligence to make it available. That's just not something that a lot of intel folks are generally comfortable with. There has been a paradigm shift, but the community, both the collectors, the analysts and the folks that work, the downgrading requests, all this is worked through an established process.

There have been no process differences here. Everything is ultimately the determinations about what to downgrade and share are made by the collection agencies, as they should be. And they let policymakers know what can and what cannot be shared. And that's how the process should work.

I can just tell you from the diplomatic side of things, the ability to downgrade to a secret/red level or in some cases at the unclassified level was incredibly powerful, especially in the run up to the invasion, to engage with countries, especially in Europe, that may have been on the fence at the time or skeptical of the intelligence reporting. The ability to share that information - in some cases in near-real time - really provided a common situational awareness across the coalition that we're trying to mobilize to push back against Russian aggression.
And even since then, it didn't stop when the invasion began. We've continued to share information with our partners and allies and with the world to, frankly, to help expose Russia's plans and intentions and to provide important warning to the Ukrainians of attacks or other strikes that the Russians may be planning.

MICHAEL MORELL: It was my sense, Brett, that the public sharing of the intelligence made it much more difficult for Putin to come up with a predicate or a rationale for the invasion; that we really cut that out from underneath him. That seemed to me to be very powerful. I don't know if that was the intent, but, that's what I saw.

And then the other thing was he was telling his people that he wasn't going to invade. And we, in terms of sharing intelligence, we're saying, 'No, he's going to invade, is going to invade.' And so at the end of the day, he was shown as a liar to his own people. So just get your reaction to to that. Is that on track or is that off track?

BRETT HOLMGREN: Michael, I think you're absolutely right. And on both counts - on your first point, I think that the Russians were clearly surprised at the strategy that the US and the West took to preempt some of his plans and intentions. And so I think he's surprised, they've had to adjust to that.

And to your second point, you're right, I think he was not and has not been truthful to the Russian people and certainly not to several members of the Russian military as well, in terms of what the plans, intentions in Ukraine actually were.

This was not to liberate the Ukrainian people. This was a very specific military campaign to ultimately to destroy Ukraine's sovereignty. And it's quite clear that not all of the Russian soldiers participating in this campaign were aware of that reality heading into the conflict.

MICHAEL MORELL: In terms of this information sharing, this intelligence sharing that the administration has been doing and all the positive things we just talked about, there was an NBC News piece last week that really caught my attention, because it cited unnamed sources in the administration saying that the intelligence community was not just playing in the information space, sharing truthful information, but was playing in the disinformation space, sharing information that analysts had some significant doubts about. And I just wonder if you could comment on that.

BRETT HOLMGREN: You know, Michael, I did see the news report. And I have to say, what was presented in that story is - it contradicts what I actually have seen in reality. The intelligence that has been submitted to the intelligence community for downgrading requests, this is not intelligence that people have been skeptical about, at least based on what I've seen. This is information that in a lot of cases is multi-sourced and which is in part why I think some of the collectors are comfortable at times sharing a little more publicly because, you know, it is multi sourced.

And so again, I've seen the report but I think it has all gone through a rigorous process, with policymakers at the White House and then ultimately those decisions being made by the intelligence community in terms of what can be shared.

MICHAEL MORELL: Puts my mind at ease, excellent. I was worried about that. All right.
Brett, I want to shift gears a little bit, but stay on Ukraine here and ask about China. I think it's safe to say when you look at all of their words for the invasion, all of their actions since the invasion, that the Chinese were supportive of this invasion. I just want to get sort of your comment on China in the context of Russia-Ukraine.

BRETT HOLMGREN: Sure, Michael. I think this no-limits strategic partnership that Putin and Xi announced in February, so, right before the invasion -I do think we will probably look back on this as a turning point in PRC-Russian relations, notwithstanding the historical differences that the two countries have had.

Ultimately what binds them, at least in our view, is that they have a shared interest in weakening U.S. influence and undermining Western norms to counter what they perceived as efforts to contain them. And so that is the overriding kind of glue that that binds them together at this point. 

Having said that, we do think that the PRC is unsettled, and I think they may be having a little buyer's remorse in terms of what they signed up for with the Russians. But the world will be watching. The ball's in China's court to see which nations stand up for self-determination and sovereignty and which ones don't.

MICHAEL MORELL: You mentioned earlier - and I think it's dead right that it's hard to overstate the significance of this from a geopolitical, geostrategic perspective - and I think I agree with you, China made a mistake here.
And I wonder [if] history is going to tell us whether they're going to pay a significant price for this or not. But certainly the European countries -major, major trading partners - aren't happy with them and have made that clear.

BRETT HOLMGREN: Yeah, that's absolutely right. And we hosted some EU counterparts here at the State Department a couple of weeks ago and had a really robust engagement with our counterparts on this very issue.
And one of the big consequences for the PRC if they continue down this path is on the economic side of things, especially with their European trading partners. So a lot for Beijing to consider.

MICHAEL MORELL: The other thing that that strikes me - one of the surprises, certainly for Putin and probably for Xi was that they didn't expect the world to come together. They didn't expect the United States to be able to to pull together the coalition that that was pulled together with the robust sanctions. That was probably a surprise to both of them.
And that's a real shot in the arm, right, to the U.S.-led international order. And that has to be something that Beijing is looking at very closely and will study and will think through what this means for them in the long term.
I think that's absolutely right, Michael. It's a great point. I mean, in some respects, Putin has achieved exactly the opposite of what he set out to do, which is to further divide NATO and the West, has had the opposite effect. It has unified the alliance. 

And it's one of the big misjudgments that Putin made heading into this conflict. He overestimated the strength of his military. He underestimated the willpower of the Ukrainian people. And he underestimated the resolve and the unity of the West in the wake of this invasion.

MICHAEL MORELL: Brett, I want to just ask one more question about China from a geostrategic, competition perspective.

A lot of countries see themselves as getting caught in the middle here between the United States and China. And some countries have clearly sided with us - like Australia, United Kingdom, Japan, India, South Korea.
Some other countries have sided with China - not very many of them, but there's a lot of other countries that kind of don't know what to do. And I'm just wondering if you could comment on the situation that they find themselves in and how they might be thinking about diplomacy going forward.

BRETT HOLMGREN: Sure. Michael. You know, as DNI Haines has said, China is an unparalleled priority for the intelligence community. That's certainly the case in INR. We're investing more analysts and experts to focus on the PRC and China in a whole variety of domains.

And when we think about the threat that China poses, they're a peer competitor, but they are - at least in China's, you, you know, the greatest long term threat to the United States. And I think that's important, as you mentioned, [for] other countries, because they're the only competitor that is capable of combining their military, economic and technological strength and power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.
So I think that's really the question. That's the challenge that we all collectively, you know, sort of face. And obviously, as you mentioned, a number of countries have economic and other considerations. But for us that is the one that stands out as the long term threat that they pose to that international system.

MICHAEL MORELL: Let me shift to Iran and just ask one question. It's really unclear whether we're going to end up with a nuclear deal or not. And I don't want to ask you to comment on that.

But if we don't, if we don't end up with an agreement, I'm wondering if you expect that Iran will just do more of what it has been doing - which is, pushing its uranium enrichment program forward in an aggressive manner and continuing with what has been a couple of years of very aggressive, malign behavior in the region.
I wonder if you expect more of the same or if you expect them to react to no deal in some other way?

BRETT HOLMGREN: Well, ultimately, Michael, that'll be a decision for the Iranian leadership to make. But I think our view in, certainly in INR, is that Iran with a nuclear weapon poses an enormous risk to the region. And so that's why I think the administration has been so focused on preventing them from acquiring a nuclear capability.
But as you know, it's a multidimensional threat that Iran poses; it's not just on the nuclear issue, but it's also the instability and destabilizing activities that they conduct already in Iraq and Syria, Yemen, violence against Israel and support for violence against Israel. And so they are focused on, Iran is focused on eroding U.S. influence in the Middle East. And I think that will remain true regardless of whether there's a nuclear deal or not.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, I know. It's interesting that people say that if we have a nuclear deal and we end up, giving them money because of sanctions relief, that that will feed their regional misbehavior.

But, you know, their regional misbehavior the last few years under very intense sanctions has been among the worst it's ever been. So it's an interesting counterpoint to those who worry about the consequences of a deal.

BRETT HOLMGREN: Well, and as you know, Michael, in the intel community, we're going to be laser-focused on just providing the very best analysis and assessments to policymakers regarding Iran's activities, whether they're in a deal or not. So that's what we'll be focused on.

MICHAEL MORELL: Brett, I want to ask you one more substantive question and then a final question about INR.
And the one more substantive question is about a part of the world that I don't see anybody talking about, really, with the passion that I think they should. And that's Latin America.

I'm very concerned about Latin America. I'm concerned about politics going to the extremes in a number of countries. I'm concerned about Mexico sort of transitioning into a non-friendly, highly criminalized country. I'm concerned about inept and authoritarian nations stifling freedom and growth and as a result, generating mass migration. I think Venezuela is the poster child for that - and I just don't see very many people talking about the region and the risks to the United States going forward here.

I'm just wondering, from your perspective, are my concerns misplaced? Do you share them? Do you not? Is there work being done on this? Can you just comment on that?

BRETT HOLMGREN: Sure, Michael. No, I think your concerns are valid. And there is, a lot of focus internally in the intel community as well as on the policy side of things. I would say, one of the things that we've been really focused on, given all of the trends that you mentioned in Latin America, is the potential for especially Russia and China to take advantage of instability, to take advantage of deteriorating economic situations in a number of countries, to begin to expand their influence in the region.

And so, there's obviously a lot of historical precedent, especially for Russia operating in that area. And I think that's one of the big areas of focus that we have, certainly in the intel community, is to understand the actions that Russia and China are taking in Latin America so that we can provide analysis to policymakers and they can take steps to minimize that risk.

MICHAEL MORELL: And then just one more question. What do you want folks to know about the women and the men who work at INR?

BRETT HOLMGREN: Well, it's a great question, Michael. I want folks to know that these are some of the brightest and most dedicated and hardest-working professionals that we have in the intelligence community.
These are folks, in INR, they generally spend their entire careers, 20, 30 years in INR because they love the institution, they love the mission, and they really have a passion for the work that they do. And so that's what I want folks to know about INR is what an incredible kind of iconic institution it is and the value that it provides to empower diplomacy around the world.

MICHAEL MORELL: And I think they're very lucky to have you at the helm. Brett, it's been great to have you with us and great to talk to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

BRETT HOLMGREN: Michael, thank you very much. If I can just say two more things.

One of the things in INR we've done this year, we've opened a Twitter account. We want to be out there to recruit. And so @StateINR is our Twitter account.
And then finally, Michael, just on a personal note, I've been a big listener of Intelligence Matters for a number of years. And one of the things I love about your show is that I always learn something from it. And so that's a compliment to you and your team. And I hope folks had an opportunity to learn something about INR today. Thank you.

MICHAEL MORELL: And I think they did. Thanks so much for joining us. 

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