Last week, a pair of leaks to the press shined a fresh light on the extent of US assistance to Ukraine in its war against Russia. On Wednesday, Julian E. Barnes, Helene Cooper, and Eric Schmitt, of the New York Times, reported, citing “senior American officials,” that the US has provided Ukrainian officials with locational details of Russian movements that they have subsequently combined with their own information and used to target and kill Russian generals—a flow of intelligence, the Times wrote, that “has few precedents.” Then, on Thursday, NBC’s Ken Dilanian, Courtney Kube, and Carol E. Lee reported, citing “US officials,” that US intelligence helped Ukrainian officials to locate the Moskva, Russia’s flagship in the Black Sea, which they subsequently sank.
There was speculation, in national-security circles, that the Biden administration planted the pair of stories deliberately in order to humiliate, or otherwise send a message to, Russia, but Politico’s Alexander Ward (who had a busy week) and Paul McLeary reported that this was not the case; on the contrary, the leaks sparked an “internal freakout” at the White House. Various officials publicly pushed back on the stories, decrying the Times’ headline—“US Intelligence Is Helping Ukraine Kill Russian Generals, Officials Say”—as “misleading” and “irresponsible,” while insisting more broadly that intelligence shared by the US has not been directly actionable and that what the Ukrainians do with it is their business. On Friday morning, John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told CNN that “leaks like this and stories like this, they’re unhelpful to the effort to help Ukraine defend itself.” The same day, according to Dilanian, Kube, and Lee, Biden personally called Lloyd Austin, his defense secretary; Avril Haines, his director of national intelligence; and William Burns, his CIA director, and told them that the leaks should stop.
Tom Friedman, the high-profile Times columnist, had more details of the call, reporting that Biden was “livid” about the leaks and used “the strongest and most colorful language” to make clear that “this kind of loose talk is reckless.” With his opinion hat back on, Friedman zoomed out to put Biden’s anger in context, noting fears, as some of the other stories did, that the leaks could provoke Russian president Vladimir Putin into a dangerous escalation of the war beyond Ukraine’s borders, before arguing that they should be taken seriously. “If you just followed news reports on Ukraine, you might think that the war has settled into a long, grinding and somewhat boring slog. You would be wrong. Things are actually getting more dangerous by the day,” Friedman wrote. “The staggering takeaway from these leaks is that they suggest we are no longer in an indirect war with Russia but rather are edging toward a direct war—and no one has prepared the American people or Congress for that.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. To the extent that the administration scolded the press for conveying the leaks, this was unfair. If the Times’ reporting was accurate—and officials have not appeared to dispute it—then so was its headline; if the US is providing Ukraine with intelligence that the latter then uses to kill Russian generals, then the US logically is “helping” Ukraine to kill Russian generals, even if it isn’t identifying individuals or advising Ukraine to target them. The Times story notes that the intelligence-sharing has been considered to be “a safe form of help,” as far as not escalating the war goes, “because it is invisible, or, at least, deniable.” Last week’s reporting obviously made it visible; indeed, the administration’s pushback seems to have been an attempt to reassert deniability, even if it hasn’t been thoroughly convincing on such terms. If the media has changed the landscape here, it has only done so by reporting on a US policy that is clearly of immense public interest. The risk of the policy becoming public is a problem for policymakers, not for the press. Assumptions of invisibility are dangerous.
Before the war, the Biden administration, along with the government of the UK, in particular, was remarkably open with the press about its intelligence assessments, sharing details of Russia’s troop movements and alleged plans to fabricate a pretext for the invasion—an effort to preemptively expose Putin’s disinformation tactics that was widely praised in national-security circles. It’s tempting to see the present moment, with the war well underway, as the result of a pivot, with administration officials now more inclined toward secrecy than radical transparency. But that’s too neat. The administration’s prewar disclosures were often presented without evidence, causing friction with reporters who pressed for more details. They were also selective; the Washington Post reported Saturday, for instance, that while the US publicized its assessment that Russia was about to invade, it did not share its assessment that Ukraine would quickly collapse, which in any case was wrong. And when other, public predictions did not come to pass, it was hard to say if the disclosure forced Putin to change tack, or if they were wrong, too. The US information war was already messy for the press to cover, even if it is doubly so now.
What of the Russian side of the information war? It has always been multifaceted and hard to read, and that remains the case. Putin remains inscrutable and unpredictable, a fact, Friedman noted, that has made Biden administration officials doubly wary of publicly bragging about his military embarrassments. Analysts have long watched Russian state media for indications as to the Kremlin line, and have recently seen there—alongside the standard-issue atrocity denialism and lies about the course of the war (What sinking of the Moskva? Nothing to see here!)—some alarmingly apocalyptic saber-rattling about the onset of World War III and the threat of nuclear apocalypse, with Vladimir Solovyov, a top state-TV propagandist, telling his audience that Russian patriots would at least go to heaven in such an eventuality.
In his recent public remarks, Putin has also invoked Russia’s nuclear capabilities, though not to the same degree. Per Friedman, US officials were particularly worried about what Putin might do or say on “Victory Day,” the Russian holiday marking the Soviet defeat of the Nazis in World War II, which fell today. Ahead of time, the Western news media was itself rife with speculation, and no little alarm, that Putin might use the celebrations to open a new phase of the actual war—channeling predictions, from officials and outside commentators alike, that he could formally declare war on Ukraine (so far, he has called it a “special military operation”), allowing him to declare a population-wide mobilization, or to gesture again at the threat of nuclear war, including via a flyover of a special “doomsday” plane designed to protect Russia’s leaders.
In the end, Putin’s Victory Day speech mostly comprised reheated bombast about Ukraine being run by Nazis and the West being terrible—The Guardian’s Shaun Walker summarized it as “revanchist historical grievance + sprinkle of Jordan Peterson”—and the planned flyover was canceled due to bad weather, even though the weather looked fine. (We can add “the sky” to the list of information-war indicators to watch, apparently.) The address was quickly characterized, in various leading US outlets, as not having announced the “escalation” many feared. Once again, it wasn’t clear if such fears were misplaced or if Putin feinted to avoid becoming predictable. World leaders, CNN’s Angela Dewan noted this morning, will “have to keep guessing” as to his intentions for now.
Guessing, of course, is a horrible mode for the press, and one we should generally avoid. We have plenty of factual ground to stand on: Russian atrocities in Ukraine continue (yesterday, they bombed a school in the Luhansk region, killing around sixty people who were sheltering there); in the US, more details of Western assistance to Ukraine could very well leak out, no matter how much Biden might want to plug them. But we are still in the thick of an information war, and that’s still a very fraught place to be. As with the war itself, the information war does not have neat phases. Our reaction should be the same as ever: humility, and vigilance.
Below, more on the war:
- State-media stories: Yesterday, the Biden administration and Western partners unveiled a new round of sanctions against Russia, some of them targeted at state TV. The European Union last week moved to ban three more Russian broadcasters from distributing their content on the continent, having already cracked down on RT and Sputnik—though a recent report from the Disinformation Situation Center found that those two outlets have been able to reach social media users in Europe in spite of the ban. Elsewhere, Mary Ilyushina reports, for the Post, that Russian websites and state-TV channels were hacked earlier today, showing an antiwar message. And, also for the Post, León Krauze assesses the story of Inna Afinogenova, RT’s “biggest star in Latin America,” who recently posted an antiwar video and resigned from RT.
- A surprise visit and a rare appearance: Yesterday Jill Biden, the US First Lady, made an unannounced visit to Ukraine, crossing the border from Slovakia, where she was known to be traveling for Mother’s Day. She met with Olena Zelenska, the Ukrainian First Lady, who had not appeared in public since Russia invaded in February. According to Katie Rogers, of the Times, the Ukrainian government reached out to the US to suggest the meeting. “Ukrainian officials understand the emotional power of social media and headlines written by the Western press,” Rogers writes, “and have invited an assortment of Western officials—and Bono—into the country in recent days.”
- Novaya Gazeta, I: Yesterday, Le Monde published an editorial written by Kirill Martynov, the editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta Europe, a new outlet founded by exiled journalists from the original Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper that has shut down through the end of the war—responding to a call by Martynov for the European press to amplify his outlet’s message on Victory Day. Le Monde also republished an excerpt from a book that Anna Politkovskaya, a Novaya Gazeta journalist, wrote about Putin prior to her murder in 2006—calling it a “warning” that the world didn’t want to hear.
- Novaya Gazeta, II: Recently, Keith Gessen, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, spoke with Elena Kostyuchenko, who reported from Ukraine for Novaya Gazeta until the paper stopped publishing. “In Novaya, we have a protocol that our journalists shouldn’t work in wars longer than two weeks, because then you start to make mistakes,” Kostyuchenko said. “You get this false sense of safety; you think, ‘If I didn’t get killed before I won’t get killed now, so I’m going to be all right.’ You can never be sure you’re going to be all right in a war.” CJR’s Paroma Soni has a write-up and audio here.
Other notable stories:
- On the subject of leaks, there’s been another one related to the Supreme Court’s deliberations around abortion, with “three conservatives close to the court” telling the Post that, as of last week, a majority of justices still intend to strike down Roe v. Wade. Elsewhere, Jeremy W. Peters, of the Times, argues that court officials’ investigation of the leak of an anti-Roe draft opinion to Politico could expose a “gray area” for the rights of the press; “while no one is suggesting that Politico broke any laws in the course of publishing its article about the draft opinion,” Peters writes, “that does not mean the journalists involved would be spared from government pressure to reveal their sources if a grand jury was convened to consider charges against the leaker.” And various news outlets warned staffers not to share their personal views about Roe on social media.
- Lara O’Reilly and Lindsay Rittenhouse report, for Insider, that carmakers are cutting their spending on advertising amid supply-chain issues and worsening inflation, “a trend that experts say could hurt media companies well into 2023.” Auto “is the sixth biggest ad category and car brands are among TV’s most important clients. National TV ad spending from automakers fell 27.4% in March year over year, and 16.9% in April.”
- According to the New York Post’s Alexandra Steigrad, morale is low among staffers at CBS News, who have complained of a newsroom culture that does not respect boundaries between their work and private lives. In response, George Cheeks, the CEO of CBS, recently messaged staff about “improving the work-life balance at the division.” (A spokesperson denied that Cheeks’s message was specifically directed at CBS News.)
- In media-jobs news, Hamed Aleaziz is leaving BuzzFeed and will now cover immigration for the LA Times. (CJR’s Amanda Darrach interviewed Aleaziz about his beat in 2020.) Elsewhere, Ruby Cramer, also a BuzzFeed alum, is leaving Politico for the Washington Post, where she’ll write “long-form stories about the people and movements shaping American politics.” And Symone Sanders debuted her MSNBC show over the weekend.
- Last week, authorities in Mexico’s Sinaloa state discovered the body of Luis Enrique Ramírez, a veteran journalist for El Debate and others, by the side of a highway. He is the ninth media worker to have been killed in what was already Mexico’s deadliest year for journalists, as CJR’s Soni wrote recently. “I do feel the imminent danger that I am the one who follows,” Ramírez once said, “because there is a pattern in which I fit.”
- Voice of America’s Teeranai Charuvastra explored the uncertain situation of journalists from Myanmar who fled for neighboring Thailand following a military coup last year. Many who entered Thailand legally have found it hard to maintain that legal status, experts say, while others face an ongoing risk of deportation. Thailand has not signed on to a UN convention that bars countries from returning refugees to dangerous situations.
- After the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party won the most seats in the Northern Irish assembly, The Times of London was criticized for a headline referring to party leader Michelle O’Neill’s past as a “pregnant schoolgirl.” The author of the article described O’Neill’s pregnancy, in the face of prejudice, as an “inspirational” part of her story, but The Times changed the headline, which now refers to O’Neill as an “IRA man’s daughter.”
- And Matt Flegenheimer and Rosa Goldensohn, of the Times, reported that Ed Koch, the late former mayor of New York, was a closeted gay man, interviewing dozens of people who knew him, most of them gay themselves, to fill out a story “that they say belongs, at last, to the sweep of history.” Times editors said that this “unwritten chapter” of Koch’s biography was “urgent for us to do now” since many of the story’s sources are elderly.
TOP IMAGE: Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre, attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the military parade marking the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II in Moscow, Russia, Monday, May 9, 2022. (Anton Novoderezhkin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)