WASHINGTON – Some Democratic and Republican lawmakers say the United States is delaying providing some intelligence to Ukraine in its fight against Russia as the U.S. also seeks to limit any direct confrontation with Moscow.
The White House insists it is consistently sharing intelligence with Ukraine quickly. But a classified directive issued as the invasion began last week set effective limits on how quickly some tactical intelligence — the kind that shape minute-to-minute battle decisions — could be shared, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The directive from the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence also limited sharing details about the specific locations of potential targets, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss intelligence matters. More details about the directive were not immediately available.
“We are adjusting as circumstances warrant and will continue to ensure that operators have flexibility to share intelligence as the conflict evolves,” said an intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the classified directive.
The issuance of the directive reflects the fine line the U.S. is walking as it seeks to aid Ukraine while avoiding a direct conflict with nuclear-armed Russia. It is sending anti-aircraft weaponry and other arms to Ukraine and leads a global effort to impose severe sanctions aimed at crippling the Russian economy. But it also has ruled out sending American troops to Ukraine or declaring a no-fly zone that could result at U.S. forces engaging with Russian warplanes.
The sharing of intelligence can be especially delicate because of the risk of revealing U.S. sources and methods and the uncertainty of whether Russia may have infiltrated the Ukrainian government.
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, told MSNBC on Thursday that the U.S. was not providing “the type of real-time targeting that you see our military having gotten in conflicts like in Iraq ... because that steps over the line to making us participating in the war.” NBC earlier reported on delays in intelligence sharing with Ukraine.
One White House official disputed that characterization, saying the administration does not believe providing tactical intelligence to the Ukrainians would constitute participating in the war any more than it currently is by providing arms — which is distinct from actually putting U.S. forces in combat. The official was not authorized to discuss the White House's thinking publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Some lawmakers in recent days have called on the Biden administration to provide more information. “This is a matter of life and death for Ukrainians, and information about where an invading Russian tank was 12 hours ago does squat to prevent civilian bloodshed,” said U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
There have been cases in which tactical intelligence has been delayed for 12 hours or more, though most delays appear to be shorter, three people familiar with the matter said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday told reporters, “We have been sharing it, real time.”
“We have consistently been sharing intelligence," Psaki said. "That includes information that the Ukrainians can use to inform and develop their military response to Russia’s invasion. That has been ongoing, and reports that suggest otherwise are inaccurate.”
Ukraine has its own intelligence service and has released some of its own findings about Russian plans to attack high-profile targets in the country or stage so-called “false-flag” operations — such as fabricated attacks by Ukrainian forces — that Moscow could use to justify its invasion.
The U.S. has a more limited intelligence sharing relationship with Ukraine than it does with other Western countries, notably the other four members of its so-called “Five Eyes” alliance — Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Administration officials insist that U.S. agencies have worked to provide Ukraine with as much information as possible about the Russian threat.
One limiting factor in what the U.S. can provide is Russia's infiltration of the Ukrainian government. The Ukrainian military and intelligence services have long struggled with rooting out Russian spies or sympathizers. And while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has sought closer ties to the West, other recent Ukrainian governments have been closer to Moscow and have key allies still in government.
Zelenskyy has had regular conversations with Biden and thanked the U.S. president and other Western leaders on Twitter for their support. But there have been occasional tensions between Washington and Kyiv over intelligence in the last several months, including Zelenskyy publicly breaking with the White House's predictions that Russia would invade. Republicans in Washington also have said the U.S. could have provided more and better information about the Russian threat to Ukraine sooner than it did, a claim the White House rejects.
Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov this week published an open letter to commercial satellite companies asking them for high-resolution satellite imagery. “We badly need the opportunity to watch the movement of Russian troops, especially at night when our technologies are blind in fact!” read the letter.
Several commercial satellite companies have contracts with the U.S. government, which has been providing imagery to the Ukrainians, people familiar with the matter said.