Image: US State Department

CIA director says declassification could expose new cyber threats in the future

The director of the CIA said Thursday the method of declassifying intelligence used in the run-up to the war in Ukraine could be utilized again in the future to expose other threats, including digital ones, but cautioned the practice would likely not be the norm.

“I think when President Biden has decided very carefully, and very selectively, to make public some of our secrets, it's played a very effective role over the course of the last six months, and I think it can continue to again,” CIA Director William Burns said at the Billington Cybersecurity Summit in Washington, D.C.

“It would make it the exception, not the rule,” he added. “Because the surest way — I've certainly found in a year-and-a-half now as director of the CIA — to lose access to that intelligence is to be reckless about how you handle it.”

The U.S. clandestine community has been lauded by international groups and policymakers for the novel ways it shared information in the months leading up to Russia’s unprovoked invasion in February, neutering the multiple false narratives pushed by the Kremlin.

Burns, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow and met directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin last November, said the strategy has been a very important means of denying the former KGB spy “something that I've watched him employ too often in the past, which is creating false narratives trying to blame the Ukrainians to create false provocations in the run up to the war.”

Still, Burns cautioned against copying the playbook and applying it to other threats.

“You're going to have to be careful in other instances, whether it's in terms of cyber threats or other kinds of challenges, that the United States and our allies will face in the future… If used carefully and selectively I think this technique, this tool, of declassifying some of our secrets in a way that serves a broader strategy can pay big dividends.”

Burns noted that nearly one-third of the CIA's officers today “work everyday" on issues related to cybersecurity, technology, science, and digital innovation.

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Martin Matishak

Martin Matishak is a senior cybersecurity reporter for The Record. He spent the last five years at Politico, where he covered Congress, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community and was a driving force behind the publication's cybersecurity newsletter.