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Not Clandestine, Anymore

It can be uttered with confidence that people in general have neither seen Government spies, nor heard them speak, as it has been the general protocol for international intelligence agencies for long. However, the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has changed this shadowy nature of intelligence, with top spies, like the chiefs of Britain’s MI6 and CIA of the US, sharing information with people openly. Experts believe that the main aim of this move is to influence the masses.

For the past six months, Ukraine has experienced the tragedy of deaths and destruction. However, the former Soviet Republic has engaged in an information warfare with neighbouring Russia, apart from taking on the Russian troops in battlefields. The West, too, has started using cyberspace to counter Russia in the virtual world. Experts are of the opinion that the battle within a battle has affected the discourse, as well as the narrative, of the clandestine nature of global espionage. It has allowed spies to make public disclosure of secret information.

The US and British intelligence agencies started holding daily intelligence briefings during the initial days of the Russia-Ukraine War to give battlefield updates, apart from releasing detailed threads on Twitter. With this, the top secret dossiers, which used to get shared within and between Governments in the past, come to the public domain. In late July (2022), Richard Moore, the Chief of MI6, tweeted that Russia was “running out of steam” in Ukraine. William Burns, the Director of the CIA, too, claimed that the figure of the Russian casualties might have crossed 15,000, in July.

A former official of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) has said: “This process of sharing intelligence in the open is a new phenomenon in global espionage.” The official, who wished to remain anonymous, has claimed that the trend would “trickle down” to other countries. For his part, former Special Director of India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) Yashovardhan Azad stressed that war between Russia and Ukraine has given a “new and fresh approach to intelligence”. “The covert, clandestine, and secret nature of global intelligence has been transformed. This is yielding both destructive and constructive results, depending on how you perceive it,” he reportedly told The Print.

In a paper published in the August edition of Survival, a bi-monthly journal of the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS); researchers Huw Dylan and Thomas Maguire stated that the Governments of Britain and the US started using “intelligence as influence” to build public support, and to “sway or persuade the decision-making, actions, or even world-view” of State and Non-State actors, as well as proxies, in March 2022. According to Dylan and Maguire, both London and Washington DC wanted to use intelligence in order to sensitise the global community and to “enhance the resilience” of their target audiences so that they could realise the “often clandestine” threats.

This sharing of intelligence information is also aimed at sending “strategic warnings” to their friends and foes. It may be noted that US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken had warned Russia of “severe costs” in December 2021, if it invaded Ukraine. He sent this message even before the start of the war when Russia had started mobilising troops near its borders with Ukraine. This new trend in intelligence had also given an opportunity to Ukraine to ensure commitments from allies in order to defend the former Soviet Republic. However, the trend failed to stop President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine. Hence, this new trend could not deter conflict in future. “The focus now must be on using this intelligence to find a way to peace,” insisted a former Indian diplomat.

While former CIA Directors Leon Panetta, Michael Hayden and John Brennan have advocated this form of open intelligence, the former RAW official has stressed on maintaining a fine balance, saying: “The clandestine nature of intelligence will not disappear. It will still be an essential fulcrum of espionage. However, this new form of intelligence in public will trickle into the rest of the world.

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