WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden lauded the CIA as the “bedrock of our national security” during a Friday visit to the agency, which also is part of the wide-ranging intelligence effort to support Ukraine's resistance against Russia.
Biden marked the 75th anniversary of the agency's founding after World War II. While at the headquarters in Virginia, he thanked the CIA for its work in Ukraine and called America's intelligence officers “the best in the world.”
Predictions that Russia would invade Ukraine in February provided a public boost for spy agencies that are often criticized and facing new pressure to deliver insights on China and Russia. Biden authorized an unprecedented campaign to declassify findings that have been credited with helping build support for severe Russia sanctions and the ramp-up of military support to Kyiv.
“It was thanks to the incredible work of our intelligence professionals that we were able to inform the world what Vladimir Putin was planning in Ukraine,” Biden told the audience while standing in front of the agency's memorial wall.
Biden came to the White House with a long history of receiving intelligence briefings, having served eight years as vice president and 36 years as a senator from Delaware, where he led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and served on the Intelligence Committee when it was first created in the 1970s. The thing he missed most after leaving the vice presidency, he said, was reading the President’s Daily Brief, the compilation of the intelligence community’s top collection and analysis.
“I’ve been involved with your agency for not 75 years, but — I hate to admit it — 52 years,” Biden said to laughs from the officers gathered. “It’s very hard to say.”
Biden has reestablished a more traditional relationship with the CIA and other agencies after former President Donald Trump repeatedly cast doubt on intelligence findings and attacked what he alleged was a “deep state” of opponents.
Still, there were tensions last year concerning Afghanistan, with finger-pointing across the government during the fall of the American-backed government as the Taliban overran Kabul. Current and former intelligence officials worked frantically to evacuate Afghans who had helped the U.S. during the two-decade war.
Douglas London, a former CIA officer who has criticized the agency's direction in recent years, said the Russia-Ukraine war has shown the CIA is on its way to becoming “an elite spy service again.”
“Its path to redemption has really been facilitated by Ukraine,” said London, author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.”
Still, the U.S. intelligence community underestimated Ukraine’s ability to resist the Russian invasion and wrongly predicted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government would fall within weeks.
The agencies are reviewing how they assess a foreign government's perceived “will to fight” — an issue the U.S. also misjudged in Afghanistan last year when it believed President Ashraf Ghani's government would hold out for months, only for Ghani to flee and the Taliban to take Kabul as the U.S. was trying to evacuate.
Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who sits on the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees, said he's pushed intelligence officials to review why there were “two significant breakdowns in a year.”
“The quality of the intelligence pre-invasion was excellent and absolutely world-class,” King said in a recent interview. “The problem was the assessment of what would happen after the invasion.”
Most of the intelligence community's work since the war began has been kept secret. U.S. officials have disclosed that it is providing Ukraine with information that Ukrainian forces have in turn used to hit high-value Russian targets, including the flagship Moskva.
The White House has tried to tamp down suggestions that the U.S. is directly helping Ukraine attack Russia out of concern that Putin may see those suggestions as escalations. Biden has said he wants to avoid a “third world war.”
As Ukraine repelled Russian forces in the first weeks of the war, and under pressure from lawmakers in Washington, the Biden administration loosened its rules on sharing intelligence and is now providing more information to the Ukrainians. It has also committed $7 billion in weapons systems, ammunition and other military aid since the war began.
Ukrainian officials and observers say Ukraine still is vastly outgunned by Russia in what's become a grinding war of attrition heavily reliant on artillery fire. Putin is believed by U.S. intelligence to have not given up on his initial aims to “neutralize” Ukraine in his eyes.
The U.S. also is involved in shoring up the cyber defenses of Ukraine and other allies against Russia's capabilities to hack and steal from digital systems. And agencies are on watch for election influence or interference from Russia amid expectations that Putin may use U.S. support for Ukraine as justification for another campaign against an American election.
“Ultimately, the U.S. calculus is this: We want to do everything we can to support the Ukrainians while avoiding a direct conflict with the Russians,” said Dale Buckner, a retired U.S. Army Green Beret who now leads the security firm Global Guardian.