Sometimes a piece of news can be both a major revelation and completely unsurprising. Take the recent disclosure, fed to NBC News’s Ken Dilanian by US officials, that much of the “declassified intelligence” given to the public over the course of the Ukraine crisis-turned-war was dubious to nonexistent.
Earlier this week, Dilanian told NBC that the Joe Biden administration’s claims that Russian president Vladimir Putin was considering using biological and chemical weapons in Ukraine was based on less-than-solid evidence, according to three different US officials he talked to. “That was based on declassified intelligence,” said Dilanian. “But we’re also told the intelligence wasn’t very clear about what exactly was going on.” Dilanian also pointed to headline news last month that Russia was requesting military aid from China, something denied by Chinese and Russian officials, as another case of this.
But if Dilanian’s piece is to be trusted, he was actually underselling the news. According to the report, written by Dilanian and three other reporters, those three officials told NBC that “there is no evidence Russia has brought any chemical weapons near Ukraine.”
They went on to acknowledge “that the U.S. has used information as a weapon even when confidence in the accuracy of the information wasn’t high” and that beyond using “low-confidence intelligence” to deter potential actions like a chemical attack, some of it was just US officials “trying to get inside Putin’s head” or releasing information “about things that are possible rather than likely.”
As examples, the report cites recent claims that Putin was being misled by his advisers, as well as the Chinese military aid claim. “The U.S. officials said there are no indications China is considering providing weapons to Russia,” states the report, adding that the White House had merely meant it as a “warning to China not to do so” and that the “charge that Russia had turned to China for potential military help lacked hard evidence.” Of course, as Antiwar.com’s Dave DeCamp pointed out, that’s not how this issue was reported at the time, with reputable outlets like the New York Times, the Telegraph, and the Associated Press reporting the US claims as if they were objective reality.
If you read between the lines, it certainly seems like US officials are admitting they’re simply making things up — or “sowing disinformation,” in the parlance of our time — and feeding it to the press, confident reporters will uncritically pass on whatever they tell them. Former MI6 chief John Sawers had suggested as much back in February, telling the Atlantic Council’s Ben Judah that he thought US and British claims about Moscow’s designs were “based on a growing understanding and analysis of Putin rather than deep, secret intelligence reports” and that they were presented as the latter to “create good stories for the media.”
It is worth considering how risky this practice can be. Take President Joe Biden’s claim that Putin was planning to use chemical weapons, a reply to Moscow’s unproven claims of US biological weapons labs in Ukraine. That flippant line, based as we now know on “low-confidence intelligence,” soon heightened the risk of military escalation, when an irresponsible Western press and hawkish politicians demanded that Biden make their use a “redline” — a trigger for war on Russia, in other words — before Biden bizarrely threatened to respond to such an attack “in kind,” presumably meaning with chemical weapons of his own.
It’s especially worth weighing up these admissions as the Western national security establishment, aided by the press, uses Putin’s invasion to claim vindication and restore the credibility it lost after the Iraq War buildup and other fiascoes. It was US and British officials who were, virtually alone, publicly saying from December onward that a Russian invasion was “imminent.” Yet “senior current former US intelligence officials” told veteran national security reporter James Risen a very different story: that the CIA had, contrary to claims at the time from Biden and UK prime minister Boris Johnson, determined Putin hadn’t made a decision to invade in December and January, and that he only decided to do so in February — notably, after Washington had rebuffed his negotiation demands around NATO expansion and other security issues.
Obviously, we have no way of knowing whether there’s any more truth to that than to the polar-opposite claims we were hearing throughout December and January. All of these are simply assertions from anonymous officials for which we’ve stubbornly been denied any real substantiation. But this contradiction, paired with the new admissions from US officials, suggest there’s still ample reason to apply the same skepticism to Western government assertions that we rightly give to claims by Russian officials. It’s also a bitter reminder of the “what-if” the world will weigh up for years to come, of what might have happened had Washington agreed to negotiate before the invasion, as a group of former diplomats had urged.
Finally, it’s yet another stark case of the double standard around “misinformation” and “disinformation,” which Western governments and their proxies in the tech sector have ramped up censorship powers to combat, dramatically escalating their powers of information control over the course of this war. There is no drumbeat to ban White House press secretary Jen Psaki from Twitter for, it turns out, baselessly charging that Moscow was planning to “possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them.” No one is demanding that the mainstream press outlets who reported all this dubious “intelligence” as fact be censored by tech companies.
Nor should they. We can easily imagine the scary ways these powers and this kind of precedent could be used to curtail press freedoms and stamp out free speech. Yet for some reason Western government officials and mainstream press outlets are entirely exempt from this panic around misinformation, even though the falsehoods and questionable claims they might peddle are vastly more consequential and far-reaching than those of random social media users and small, web-based news outlets.
The admission that US officials have fed the press “intelligence” that may have been nothing of the sort should be a wake-up call to both reporters and the public. Not everything government officials say is a lie; but many of the things they say aren’t the truth, either.