public diplomacy

What happens when spy secrets become public: A public diplomacy approach to the fallout


Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked classified information about U.S. intelligence community surveillance programs in 2015. (Photo Credit: Flicker Creative Commons by Gage Skidmore)


Whether it be the revelations about U.S. wiretapping allies in Europe or the fallout of Russian hacking during the 2016 American presidential election, states that employ foreign intelligence against other states can expect some of those efforts to become public. This article will review notable cases and offer suggestions on how the aggressor nation can use public diplomacy tools to minimize the blowback in the target nation. In essence, this essay will seek to answer the question: what should aggressor nation’s public diplomats do when intelligence activities go public in a target nation?

The Snowden leaks in Germany: Wait and see


Then-U.S. President Barack Obama meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015. (Photo Credit: Flicker Creative Commons by Pete Souza)

On October 23, 2013, Der Spiegel reported, based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, that the United States had been listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls. The primary U.S. taking point, first used by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, that day was: “the United States is not monitoring, and will not monitor, the communications of the chancellor.” From that point—maybe because of knowledge garnered through counterintelligence or maybe out of luck—the U.S. held that line and adopted a wait and see approach. The Germans, for their part, took a strong line: “spying among friends—that is simply not done,” affirmed Chancellor Merkel.

The U.S. approach was vindicated in May 2015 when it was revealed that the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, had worked with the NSA to spy on friendly European companies and individuals. It was further rewarded when, in October 2015, Der Spiegel reported that the BND had been spying on “European and American government ministries and the Vatican.” Merkel’s words came back to haunt her as it turned out that spying on friends was, in fact, her policy, a revelation that put her in the hot seat and seemingly vindicated the United States.

This approach assumes a counter narrative will develop that combats the initial leak. In that sense, it can be a risky bet unless the aggressor nation has intelligence that indicates that is a likely outcome.

Russia, WikiLeaks, and the DNC: The implausible deniability approach


Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meeting with then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Russia on March 19, 2010. (Photo Credit: Government of the Russian Federation)

On June 14, 2016, the Washington Post was the first to report that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) computer network had been breached by Russian government hackers. The hackers accessed opposition research on Donald Trump and were able to read all email and chat traffic on DNC servers. That triggered the Russian approach to countering the hacking narrative, first used by Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman: “I completely rule out a possibility that the [Russian] government or the government bodies have been involved in this.” Crowdstrike, a respected cybersecurity firm, released a report the next day which emphatically contradicted this statement and concluded the hack was perpetrated by Russian government hackers.

Just over a month later WikiLeaks released the first in a series of hacked emails taken from the DNC. In October, DC Leaks—a website created by a Russian hacker—released more emails from the series, and WikiLeaks released the hacked emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. Independent analysis and an Intelligence Community (IC) report have since concluded that the hacking and leaks were conducted by the Russian government in an attempt to influence the outcome of the election in favor of Donald Trump.

Putin’s government has continued to hold to their initial talking point that denies their involvement, but their implausible denial increasingly looks foolish in the face of mounting evidence. The denial, as a public diplomacy tool, has not helped their perception in the United States. In 2011, 42% of American had a negative view of Russia, a number that increased to 70% in 2017 according to Gallup.

A new approach: Counterintelligence as a public diplomacy tool


The Embassy of the United States in Berlin, Germany. (Photo Credit: The United States Diplomacy Center/The Department of State)

The American wait and see approach to the spy revelations in Germany was a stroke of luck; without specific knowledge that makes that strategy potentially effective it is a shot in the dark. The Russian denial approach is even worse, leaving the narrative completely out of the control of public diplomacy officials who lose credibility by being untruthful. While one size cannot fit all in intelligence work, a framework for an alternate approach is needed.

Public diplomacy officials should actively work with the IC to develop a tactical, deployable know, show and tell approach. This approach would work in a way similar to the American wait and see approach in Germany with several important distinctions. In the U.S., this new approach would require greater cooperation between the IC and the State Department.

The framework: The know, show and tell approach

  1. Informed (know): It must be informed by counterintelligence and counterespionage information that exposes hypocrisy or relevantly embarrassing information about the target nation. For instance, if the U.S. had known details about German spying programs, public diplomacy officials could have leaked that information to the press to counter their high horse narrative.
  2. Deployable (show): It must be ready to deploy before an intelligence leak occurs. The quicker public diplomats can take control of the narrative, the greater potential for success in changing the story. The tactical leak of ready made counterintelligence would likely be effective to turn the story from the aggressor nation to the target nation.
  3. Benign/malicious (tell): Depending on the target nation relationship to the aggressor nation the deployable information leaked to the press should be on a spectrum between benign and malicious. Hypothetically, the U.S. should not have released information about NSA-BND cooperation because Germany is an ally. Instead, they should have released more benign information, like BND spying on European corporations, that would still help to counter the narrative. For an adversary nation, the information released could be more malicious.

Going forward: The risks and a new agency


The groundbreaking of the new United States Diplomacy Center in Washington, D.C. with then Secretary of State Kerry and then-former Secretaries of State Kissinger, Baker, Albright, Powell, and Clinton. (Photo Credit: The United States Diplomacy Center/The Department of State)

The evident and inherent risks with this approach are the potential to reveal U.S. national security secrets, expose proprietary intelligence gathering techniques, and the potential to harm relationships with target nations. While these are serious concerns, the potential strategic value of the approach out ways the potential risk if implemented correctly. That delicate balance would require interagency cooperation that is not possible in today’s environment. The degree of IC, State Department (DOS), and Defense Department (DOD) cooperation required for the know, show and tell approach to be successful would be unprecedented.

To successfully implement the approach U.S. policy makers should consider creating an interagency task force or a soft power institution that could be responsible for such cooperation, potentially in the shape of the former U.S. Information Agency. That agency could work with the IC, DOS, DOD and foreign partners (where appropriate) to develop and execute know, show and tell campaigns that could be deployed rapidly after intelligence leaks. If done properly, this approach would have the potential to deter future leaks by state actors and become and effective tool in America’s public diplomacy toolkit.

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.



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