Biden admin takes premature victory lap on Russian invasion intelligence

Biden admin takes premature victory lap on Russian invasion intelligence

The Biden administration is taking a victory lap over the U.S. intelligence community’s performance during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine despite the war still raging and U.S. spy agencies overestimating the might of the Kremlin military and underestimating Ukrainian resistance.

The latest example occurred during a Wednesday interview of Brett Holmgren, assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, on the Intelligence Matters podcast of former acting CIA Director Michael Morell. Holmgren said U.S. spy agency actions related to the Russia-Ukraine war would be seen as among the best in U.S. history. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley made similar claims last week.

Holmgren said Wednesday: “[A] point I want to make is really to compliment the intel community on the work that they did in the runup to the invasion, providing the strategic indications and warning of Russia’s plans and intentions, which was absolutely vital — and I’ve seen it on the diplomatic side in allowing the United States to mobilize with our partners and allies a unified response immediately after the invasion.”

The State Department official continued: “And so I really think, Michael, that history will reflect that the work the intel community did will be right up there along with, you know, uncovering ballistic missiles in Cuba in 1962 and finding [Osama] bin Laden in 2011. I think this will be one of the third great achievements for the intel community.”

The intelligence community has long considered the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba among its great successes, but some researchers argue the Cuban missile crisis should be looked at as something of an intelligence failure, too.

The CIA-planned U.S. special forces raid against bin Laden was carried out by SEAL Team Six and killed the 9/11 mastermind in Pakistan after a 10-year search.

The invasion of Ukraine came after weeks of warnings by the Biden intelligence community that Russian President Vladimir Putin was likely to invade.

Morell gently pushed back on Holmgren’s claim that the intelligence operation was a resounding success, saying: “My sense was that the IC was saying that, you know, what I thought — that the Russians were gonna be able to get to Kyiv pretty quickly.”

Holmgren conceded that the intelligence community wants to learn from previous experiences and explained how it misjudged Russia and Ukraine.


“I think if you just look at the sheer numbers on paper of Russia’s, you know, personnel, military forces, their capabilities compared to the Ukrainians — there’s no distinction there. I mean, it’s an incredible gap between two,” Holmgren. “And I think, you know, I think a lot of our, you know, our analysts — I talk to a lot of our analysts about this regularly — the lens they had looking at Russia’s military was through a more traditional conventional lens, but what we’ve seen with the Ukrainians, due to the courage and incredible willpower to resist this invasion, is frankly a bit of a surprise, not only for the intel community but I think for a lot of folks.”

He added: “So I think there’s an opportunity for us to kind of take a look back at what happened.”

Morell said that “the will to fight is so much more important than the ability to fight,” and Holmgren agreed.

Milley made a similar argument in front of the House Armed Services Committee, saying: “This war has arguably been the most successful intelligence operation in military history, and it’s really tremendous. And someday, that story will be told.”

However, Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of U.S. European Command, said the U.S. had screwed up some of its assessments in Ukraine.

Wolters pointed to “the will and determination of the Ukrainian citizens” but added that “you just take a look at the capability of the Russian military, and there’s certainly challenges.”

Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais asked how concerned the general is “about what appears to be intel failures.”

“The world of a 21st century intel officer is very difficult,” Wolters said. “I think what we owe each other is once we get the facts about how this unfolded and what was said and what was accomplished, we need to go back and look at our soft areas.”

The general added: “This one has been baffling as a result of Russia’s challenges and the spirit of the Ukrainian citizens, and their contributions were probably areas that we need to examine one more time.”

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Intelligence Committee in March: “We did not do as well in terms of predicting the military challenges that [Putin] has encountered with his own military.”

Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, went further, admitting that he had botched the assessment of Ukraine’s will to fight: “My view was that, based on a variety of factors, that the Ukrainians were not as ready as I thought they should be. Therefore, I questioned their will to fight. That was a bad assessment on my part because they have fought bravely and honorably and are doing the right thing.”

Of Putin, Berrier said: “We made some assumptions about his assumptions, which proved to be very very flawed.”

Wolters also said one of Putin’s reasons for invading now was he thought he might be able to exploit divisions in NATO following the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan. Milley said this month that “it certainly is possible” that the fall of Afghanistan helped lead Putin to decide to invade.

Milley reportedly told Congress behind closed doors in early February that Kyiv could be conquered by Russia within 72 hours of invading. In comparison, both Milley and President Joe Biden appeared to overestimate the strength of the Afghan army.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a Thursday video address that his country should have pride after withstanding 50 days of Russian attacks even though he said the Kremlin “gave us a maximum of five.”

U.S. intelligence officials believed the Russian military would be able to take over Kyiv in two days, according to the New York Times.


“If we had known in advance how strong the Ukrainians would be and how weak the Russians would be, we might have been able to preposition more equipment and had aid to the Ukrainians flow in faster,” independent Sen. Angus King, another Senate Intelligence Committee member, told the outlet in March.

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Written by Jerry Dunleavy

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