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The Hill
The Hill
16 Feb 2024
Tara D. Sonenshine, opinion contributor

NextImg:Republicans would be wise to remember: One must be intelligent when handling intelligence 

Americans are living in nervous times. Things happen with little notice. A Super Bowl parade can turn into a mass shooting in seconds, in full view of 800 police officers: 

So why would a member of Congress, Rep. Michael R. Turner, Republican of Ohio and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, pull the fire alarm announcing that Russia has obtained some secret nuclear capability, with little context and no public plan to calm a nervous nation?  

Turner called on the Biden administration to declassify the information without saying specifically what it was — a bad use of intelligence. Not only was it reckless and unnecessary, the leak also had the potential to burn U.S. intelligence sources and methods

What Turner was hinting at is not new. I and others wrote about it about a year ago in explaining Russia’s accelerating interest in developing weapons in space that could shoot down foreign commercial and military satellites.  

There might be new progress on the Russian side but not likely anything as imminent as the deployment of a weapon. As a former U.S. official told the New York Times, “such a satellite-killing weapon, if deployed, could destroy civilian communications, surveillance from space and military command-and control operations by the United States and its allies. At the moment, the United States does not have the ability to counter such a weapon and defend its satellites.” 

National security adviser Jake Sullivan on Wednesday said he was “surprised” that Turner had made the existence of the intelligence public, noting that he was already scheduled to brief the top Republican and Democratic leaders of the House — including Turner — on Thursday. 

National Security Communications Adviser John Kirby later confirmed that Russia is developing an anti-satellite capability, but emphasized that “this is not an active capability that’s been deployed” and it’s not “a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction here on Earth.” 

From a purely public diplomacy standpoint, Congress has been behaving recklessly of late, from avoiding having both Houses take up Ukraine funding to impeaching the U.S. Homeland secretary. This latest disclosure of Russian-related information, probably designed to scare House members into voting on assistance to Kyiv, only served to force more members of Congress to issue more statements on a topic they may know little about or too much for disclosure. 

A letter sent to members of Congress from Turner, obtained by ABC News, indicated the threat is linked to “a destabilizing foreign military capability that should be known by all Congressional Policy Makers.” 

Members are now scrambling to put this nuclear genie story back in the bottle. Expect more leaks about leaks and memos about memos, and letters and press conferences galore. 

“We are going to work together to address this matter, as we do all sensitive matters that are classified,” House Speaker Mike Johnson told reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon. “But we just want to assure everyone steady hands are at the wheel.” 

Rep. Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat and the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, repeated that sentiment in his own statement, calling the warning “significant” but “not a cause for panic. “As to whether more can be declassified about this issue, that is a worthwhile discussion, but it is not a discussion to be had in public,” Himes said. 

Enter from stage right: Rep. Andy Ogles (R-Tenn.) is calling for a formal inquiry into what Turner started with this Russia space disclosure, deeming his actions “reckless” and tying it to legislation pending on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. 

Again, Moscow developing anti-satellite ASAT weapons is not new. It is Congress that appears dangerously ill-prepared to handle intelligence. Space-related organizations have been tracking this since 2015. 

In March 2022, the well-respected Arms Control Organization published a detailed look at the dangers of Russian advances in space. “Russian leaders believe that a change in the character of warfare has been unfolding over the past three decades. They write that the next generation of warfare will be waged in the aerospace domain with weapons enabled by satellite targeting and navigation.” 

What might be new is more advanced Russian testing, further progress on deployment, and time-sensitive efforts by Vladimir Putin to interfere with Ukrainian satellite capabilities as well as American and NATO satellite imagery. 

It should be noted that the U.S. government has been doing its own space force development going back to 2019, when then-President Trump created a new agency to safeguard American satellites in what many see as a growing space war scenario. 

“We have to build a more resilient architecture” with more small satellites that can’t be so easily targeted, the head of the Space Force told the Washington Post in 2021. He said the Space Force is working to solve this vulnerability, cooperating with the National Reconnaissance Office, which oversees space surveillance, and with commercial satellite companies. 

Regardless, we should wait for the national security adviser or the president of the United States to tell us what we need to know (or enterprising journalists to delve deeper into the story). Single members of Congress with random bits of information don’t count as intelligence reporting — it’s just gossip with bad consequences. 

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and current senior fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.