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Spying for Human Rights

Why Documenting Abuses Should Be Part of the Intelligence Community’s Job

Published in: Foreign Affairs
Carrying an exhumed body at a mass burial site, Izium, Ukraine, September 23, 2022. © 2022 Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters

The U.S. intelligence community appears to be doing more to document Russian atrocities in the war in Ukraine than it has to document human rights abuses in any conflict in history. American spy agencies have gathered evidence that Russian commanders intentionally targeted civilian areas and planned to kidnap thousands of Ukrainian children, according to The New York Times. The Biden administration has also made clear that its intelligence assets are watching Russian President Vladimir Putin’s every move. And the U.S. State Department has set up a new Conflict Observatory for Ukraine that is gathering loads of open-source evidence of Russian misconduct.

But Ukraine is the exception, not the norm. Policymakers almost never have this breadth or depth of intelligence on human rights abuses at their disposal. The reason for that is simple, intelligence analysts say: their job is not to hoover up intelligence on human rights abuses around the world but to help their bosses understand threats and opportunities in foreign policy. Human rights is not a routine or prioritized issue for intelligence collection. As a result, classified briefings on countries or issues don’t regularly include information on human rights violations such as crackdowns on political dissent, proposed laws discriminating against minorities, or misuse of security forces—even though such information is essential for policymaking.

True, policymakers have access to open-source information on rights abuses, including what can be found on Twitter, in news outlets, and even on the Dark Web. Human Rights Watch, where I work, documents human rights abuses in over 100 countries—everything from wartime atrocities to forced labor to discrimination against women. Our research is regularly used by the U.S. government and often cited in the State Department’s annual human rights report. But there is a limit to how much Human Rights Watch and similar organizations can document by comparison with the U.S. intelligence community. U.S. President Joe Biden and his national security adviser should make human rights an intelligence priority and invest in training an intelligence community that understands why and how human rights are essential for policymaking.


U.S. officials rely on classified materials from intelligence analysts because those materials are considered rigorous and objective. Unless open-source information is complemented with routine, all-source classified analysis on human rights from the intelligence community, policymakers are left with a picture of the world that is potentially distorted or full of holes.

Rights violations committed by governments speak volumes about how they see the world and how they are likely to behave. Collecting and analyzing information on such violations should be an essential part of any intelligence officer’s job. Policymakers working on a trade deal with a particular country, for instance, may find it valuable to know that its government has a discriminatory labor law in the works. Policymakers planning a climate conference overseas may want to consider the restrictions on civil society in a given country before settling on a location. Seemingly small human rights abuses can also be canaries in the coal mine, warnings of bigger crises that will have to be dealt with down the road.

The lack of emphasis on human rights in intelligence collection has not been helped by the U.S. government’s broader neglect of the issue in recent years. U.S. President Donald Trump deliberately undermined human rights in his foreign policy—for instance, by sanctioning International Criminal Court officials and taking reproductive health out of international resolutions. Trump’s legacy is still evident in the policymaking process today, with staff shortages and a lack of institutional knowledge across agencies dealing with human rights.

Biden came into the White House pledging to put human rights back at the center of U.S. foreign policy, but he hasn’t invested enough in reversing the damage of the Trump years. Last year, his administration eliminated a senior post it had created on the National Security Council dedicated to democracy and human rights, and the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has been without a confirmed assistant secretary since the beginning of Biden’s term. (The president has not put forward a nominee since the longtime democracy and rights champion Sarah Margon withdrew in January because Senator James Risch, Republican of Idaho, refused to move her nomination to a vote.) Without leaders whose job it is to ask for specific intelligence on human rights, policymakers are unlikely to receive real-time analysis of issues that could shape their view of the world and inform their decisions.

Tasking the intelligence community with regularly collecting information on human rights won’t fix a deficient bureaucracy or a lack of political will to make human rights a bigger policy priority. But doing so will give policymakers a clearer picture of countries, their people, and how the United States could engage with them—which is, of course, the job of the intelligence community.


Eighteen different agencies comprise the U.S. intelligence community, and all are responsible for collecting intelligence based on the top priorities of the president, the national security adviser, the director of national intelligence, and the rest of the cabinet. The National Intelligence Priorities Framework, a document that communicates the president’s priorities, tells the intelligence community where to focus its budgets and personnel—its money, eyes, and ears. Senior experts are assigned to each topic to advise the director of national intelligence on processes for collecting intelligence on that topic.

Right now, human rights considerations make their way into the briefing books that reach top policymakers only in an ad hoc fashion. Senior officials can specifically ask for human rights intelligence—for instance, about protests that turned violent or populations fleeing conflict. But proactive inquiry requires an understanding of how human rights figure into a policy puzzle. It also requires knowing what one doesn’t know. Senior officials are unlikely to request intelligence on human rights issues related to events or situations that they are unaware of.

Another way human rights considerations make their way into the policy debate is through diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies around the world. In addition to informing the State Department’s annual human rights report, these cables give policymakers a window into what is happening in any given country. But they are often written by officers based in capital cities, which means that they sometimes miss important human rights developments elsewhere in those countries. And such cables are not necessarily passed to officials outside the State Department, especially if they contain only ordinary updates on human rights.

The State Department’s internal analysis shop, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, has analysts who cover human rights issues and pass relevant information on to policymakers—for instance, flagging if a U.S. military partner is abusing civilians. But the bureau doesn’t collect its own intelligence. Instead, it relies on information that comes in from other sources, none of which routinely collect intelligence on human rights.


Those opposed to tasking the intelligence community with collecting information on human rights argue that the explosion of open-source information gives policymakers more than enough material to make informed decisions. And yes, open-source data should be incorporated into briefings for policymakers. But it is foolish to think that Department of Defense staffers or Foreign Service officers will spend hours scouring the Internet for videos of child labor in Europe or the displacement of people from pesticide use in Colombia, especially if they don’t know those things are happening. The sheer amount of information out there makes spotting a human rights problem solely through open-source intelligence a Sisyphean task.

Policymakers need access to classified information on human rights violations, as well. There is a reason why the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have intelligence committees and members of Congress have security clearances. They can’t get all the information they need from Twitter and Facebook. Pinpointing the perpetrator of an extrajudicial killing, for example, is something intelligence analysts can do that researchers looking at Facebook cannot, and their analysis carries a weight with policymakers that social media does not.

Where and when the U.S. officials have put muscle behind intelligence collection on human rights, the results have been impressive. In 2011, President Barack Obama established the Atrocities Prevention Board, an interagency committee responsible for briefing top officials on risks of mass violence around the world. The CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence were members of that board, and they brought senior officials regular information on atrocity risks. That effort proved valuable, helping policymakers prepare for crises that were coming down the pike. In 2014 in Burundi, for instance, the intelligence community highlighted the possibility of mass violence before the 2015 elections. As a result, the U.S. government was able to adjust its diplomacy and put resources into preventing bloodshed.

 The Obama administration made a similar effort to gather intelligence on the state of democracy around the world in preparation for a strategy to counter authoritarianism. It could have copied and pasted the analysis of Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that ranks democracies and publishes an annual report on which countries are trending toward authoritarianism. But policymakers saw value in an internal assessment from U.S. intelligence analysts, who could combine open-source information with classified intelligence to give a fuller picture of the global condition of democracy.

Finally, the Biden administration’s Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, a newly revised framework for evaluating potential arms transfers, refers to using all available information on the human rights records of U.S. security partners, including what is collected by intelligence agencies. U.S. arms sales and security assistance totaled over $47 billion globally over the last three years, and that number is likely to rise as the United States competes with China for partners. Arming the world is inherently risky; doing so without deep insight into the human rights situation in the countries receiving arms is reckless. The new policy is a step in the right direction, but arms sales are far from the only policy area that would benefit from human rights intelligence.

Biden should include a directive to gather such intelligence in the next National Intelligence Priorities Framework. Doing so would allow the director of national intelligence to create the infrastructure necessary to train personnel and direct them to collect intelligence on human rights. This could take the form of a dedicated team under the director that thinks through where and how intelligence agencies could improve their ability to collect human rights intelligence. Or it could take the form of a single official who coordinates with designated analysts across all agencies, similar to the current point person for election intelligence.

Analysts would also need to be routinely trained on how to detect human rights abuses and flag them up the chain. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have sophisticated methodologies for identifying and analyzing such abuses that are well documented. Of course, there is a final imperative step: policymakers must actually use this intelligence on human rights to make better decisions. That is hard to force, but it definitely won’t happen if the intelligence is never delivered in the first place. 

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