Nine U.S. commanders join call to declassify intelligence to show “harmful behavior” of China and Russia

The U.S. intelligence community is seeking to accelerate the declassification and release of information to meet strategic needs as several four-star U.S. military generals have asked the U.S. intelligence community for help in countering China and Russia’s intelligence warfare, according to POLITICO, a U.S. political news site.

Nine four-star military generals in charge of U.S. military forces in Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America and special operations forces wrote to then-acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire last January, pleading with intelligence agencies to declassify and release to them more information and evidence to show the world what China and Russia are doing to help combat Russian and Chinese ” harmful behavior” (pernicious conduct). These harmful acts include undermining U.S. relations with allies and violating the sovereignty of other countries.

According to the joint letter obtained by Politico, Washington can only gain the support of U.S. allies by “resisting America’s 21st century challengers by presenting the truth in the public sphere. Because many efforts in this competition of ideas have been hampered by overly strict secrecy practices.

In their letter, the generals said, “China and Russia are conducting political warfare through the means of total state power, manipulating the information environment, violating national sovereignty, collaborating with international organizations, weakening the integrity of the international community and undermining our allies and partnerships. Their attempts to remake the world in their own image, proliferate authoritarianism, and advance their ambitions are provocative, dangerous, and destabilizing.”

The letter was organized by Adm. Philip Davidson, the outgoing commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and was signed by nine of the 11 four-star combatant commanders, said multiple administration officials familiar with the letter. Only the top generals of U.S. Central Command and Cyber Command did not sign.

The joint letter, which has never been made public, made waves in the Pentagon, in the intelligence community and on Capitol Hill last year, and it is unprecedented for so many top-level military generals to join together to make the request, the report said. It was nicknamed the “36 Star Memo” by those familiar with it. However, the joint letter is not an order or an ultimatum, but a plea for the U.S. intelligence community to make significant changes.

The letter does not specify what evidence the generals want made public, but notes that both Russia and China have launched major hacking campaigns against the United States. The reason this memo has now emerged is unclear.

The letter is not classified, but is labeled “for official use only. The letter insists that the current situation falls far short of what the generals need to counter the harmful actions of Russia and China.

One of the areas of intelligence that the generals are demanding be made public is satellite imagery. A former senior Pentagon intelligence official told POLITICO that the memo implies that some combatant commanders are extremely unhappy about not being able to share satellite photos of enemy behavior with allies and partners. Another former Defense Department official also said commanders privately said intelligence could not be shared because it was classified or declassified too slowly or by overclassification procedures.

A statement to POLITICO from Matt Rall, deputy assistant for strategic communications in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said a panel of Pentagon and intelligence officials convened a series of working groups last summer in response to the military memo and made recommendations.In December 2020, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence asked intelligence agencies to review their existing procedures and make improvements at the required speed and scale to support combatant commands.

He added that in January, an “initial response” was received from intelligence agency heads stating that they were reviewing the agencies’ progress and emphasizing that combating malicious influence remained a top priority.

The response outlined a series of measures to address the military’s ongoing concerns about losing the information war, including improving the efficiency of disclosure, degradation and declassification processes and prioritizing intelligence release requirements that address strategic messaging and malicious influence. The statement did not indicate, however, where this rose in the list of priorities for focus.

The statement also said that Strategic Communications is also developing education and training programs for intelligence officers and analysts on how to detect different forms of false disinformation from adversaries.

The report concluded by quoting Democratic U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, vice chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, as saying that the United States has a major advantage against China and Russia. Because “the facts are on our side, we need to do a better job of articulating and exposing these activities of our adversaries.”