CIA seeing ‘a lot of effort’ from Russia to close down US intelligence visibility

The head of the Central Intelligence Agency told the Munich Security Conference on Saturday that Russia was putting a lot of work into disrupting the agency’s intelligence collection efforts — but without significant success.

CIA Director William Burns, speaking alongside Michael Turner, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said the United States “providing usable intelligence” to Ukraine has been one of the most important contributions “besides weapons” that the U.S. has made to the country’s defense.

Turner said that prior to the start of the invasion “we’d taken our eye off the ball with Russia,” and praised director Burns for leading the efforts to “pull together new information and analytical scrutiny” to get the U.S. intelligence community into shape.

Burns acknowledged that the Biden administration had been concerned during the early days of the invasion that providing too much intelligence to Ukraine could have been seen as “provocative” by Russia, but that it quickly became apparent the withholding of information “was inhibiting the Ukrainian ability to be successful.”

The administration’s initial rules about sharing intelligence were “way too restrictive,” said Burns, who added that the CIA believed Ukraine should know the actual physical locations of Russian troops. When these rules were changed “it enabled us to provide tactical intelligence which had an impact on the battlefield,” he added.

“It’s a constant challenge to continue to use intelligence and share it wisely and quickly to keep Putin on the back foot, but that’s something we’re deeply committed to,” the director added.

Harvard political scientist Graham Allison, who chaired the panel, said that he thought it was fair for Putin to describe the U.S. providing intelligence on targets for Ukraine as an act of hostility, and asked whether Russia had been successful in countering the agency’s collection efforts.

Burns responded that the CIA was “not seeing any loss of capabilities” but “seeing a lot of effort from Russia to close down intel visibility.”

“The intelligence sharing that we engage in — and it's a two-way street, we've learned a lot from our NATO partners, we learn a lot from the Ukrainians as well — has been the essential cement in the coalition that the president has organized," said Burns.

Concerns about China

Burns also spoke about the broader impact of the war, and how it may influence China’s actions. 

“No foreign leader is watching Ukraine more intently than Xi Jinping,” said Burns of the Chinese premiere. Specifically, “the way Ukrainians resisted with courage and tenacity” a much “more powerful military” is something that has unsettled Xi.

The U.S. will never underestimate Beijing’s ambitions towards Taiwan, said Burns, adding that the long-term challenge posed by China remained the CIA’s highest priority.

China’s leadership “already had doubts” about their ability to successfully conduct a military invasion of the island and unify it within the People’s Republic of China. Russia’s challenges in Ukraine have “deepened some of those doubts,” the CIA director added.

“Xi is paying very close attention to Putin’s awful experience in Ukraine,” he added, and said the Chinese premiere had been “disturbed” by the coalition that President Biden had built.

China’s president has instructed the country’s military to be ready and capable to conduct a physical invasion of Taiwan by the end of 2027, said Burns, something which the CIA knew as a matter of intelligence. The director explained that setting such a date doesn’t mean an invasion will take place then, but that the risk of an invasion increases “the further we get into this decade and beyond.”

“We shouldn’t underestimate those ambitions,” he warned.

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Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.