Snow­den driv­ing in­tel of­fi­cers to weigh se­cu­rity of se­crecy vs. PR

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - BY MICHAEL HAY­DEN

Ed­ward Snow­den — that in­cred­i­bly naive, hope­lessly nar­cis­sis­tic, and in­suf­fer­ably self-im­por­tant de­fec­tor in Moscow — is, in his own pe­cu­liar way, a gift. He has per­formed like a ca­nary in a coal mine.

Mr. Snow­den is the vis­i­ble ef­fect, not the cause, of a broad cul­tural shift that is re­defin­ing le­git­i­mate se­crecy, nec­es­sary trans­parency and what con­sti­tutes con­sent of the gov­erned.

Long be­fore Mr. Snow­den, I asked the CIA’s civil­ian ad­vi­sory board, “Will Amer­ica be able to con­duct es­pi­onage in the fu­ture in­side a broader po­lit­i­cal cul­ture that ev­ery day de­mands more trans­parency and more pub­lic ac­count­abil­ity from ev­ery as­pect of na­tional life?” Even though the board had se­ri­ous doubts, we did lit­tle to ac­com­mo­date to chang­ing re­al­i­ties.

An early Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency (NSA) de­fense of the 215 meta­data pro­gram was that the White House, Congress and the courts were all wit­ting and sup­port­ive. In a post-Water­gate Church Com­mit­tee era, that should have been suf­fi­cient. It wasn’t. A lot of our coun­try­men, and not just the crazy ones, con­cede the in­tra-gov­ern­men­tal trans­parency but then add, “But you didn’t tell me!”

That’s new, and Mr. Snow­den’s “gift” was to make that clear. It’s also clear that if we are go­ing to con­duct es­pi­onage in the fu­ture, we are go­ing to have to make some changes in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity and the pub­lic it serves.

Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence rou­tinely as­sumes that it is op­er­at­ing with at least the im­plied sanc­tion of the Amer­i­can people. Its prac­ti­tion­ers be­lieve that if the Amer­i­can people knew all of what they were do­ing, they would broadly have their sup­port. For­mer NSA Di­rec­tor Keith Alexan­der fa­mously said that he wished he could tell all 300+ mil­lion of us ex­actly how the agency op­er­ates.

He couldn’t, of course. Es­pi­onage thrives in the shad­ows, and se­crecy is an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of its suc­cess. De­spite a la­tent plus side (le­git­i­macy, sup­port, un­der­stand­ing), Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence has judged the mi­nus side of go­ing pub­lic (de­creased ef­fec­tive­ness) to be de­ter­mi­na­tive.

It’s a no­ble cal­cu­lus and one the com­mu­nity rarely gets credit for. Du­ti­fully, the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity (IC) re­sponds to leaks by hun­ker­ing down, nei­ther con­firm­ing nor deny­ing, and hop­ing for the best. There is a plus side to an ac­cu­rate story be­ing out there, but tra­di­tional think­ing has held that that is out­weighed by the op­er­a­tional cost of any­thing be­ing out there at all.

In­creas­ingly, though, the IC doesn’t con­trol the “open­ness” agenda. Things that are bet­ter kept hid­den now rou­tinely en­ter the pub­lic do­main. Of­ten they en­ter via po­lit­i­cal masters who see gain in a sup­port­ive press story; things like the de­tailed process for ap­prov­ing tar­geted killings or the con­tents of a “se­cret” Se­nate re­port on CIA in­ter­ro­ga­tions are made pub­lic with barely an eye­brow raised. Other, less of­fi­cial leaks usu­ally en­ter the pub­lic con­scious­ness in a piece­meal fash­ion, and the story lines they spawn of­ten get rushed to the dark­est cor­ner of the room.

Put an­other way, Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence is al­ready pay­ing 70 to 80 to 90 per­cent of the op­er­a­tional cost of this stuff be­ing out there, but is still deny­ing it­self any po­ten­tial upside to a co­gent, (fairly) com­plete de­scrip­tion of what is ac­tu­ally go­ing on. The re­sult is that Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence is los­ing both ef­fec­tive­ness and le­git­i­macy.

Be­fore any of my old col­leagues hy­per­ven­ti­late, let me ad­mit to and list the down­sides of an in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity be­ing more ag­gres­sive in telling more of its story.

This could be a slip­pery slope. Once started, where or when do you stop? Specif­i­cally, once hav­ing put some facts out there, the “Glo­mar de­fense” (nei­ther con­firm­ing or deny­ing the ex­is­tence of some­thing) be­comes prob­lem­atic. We may also see a weak­en­ing of state se­crets’ claims in friv­o­lous law­suits. Of course, a co­her­ent pub­lic sto­ry­line also cre­ates a base­line for ag­gres­sive re­porters to start press­ing their sources for additional in­for­ma­tion. Fi­nally, vol­un­tary dis­clo­sures could le­git­i­mate claims that this or that leak re­ally doesn’t harm na­tional se­cu­rity.

There is also a po­lit­i­cal dan­ger. In­tel­li­gence pok­ing its head out of the bunker will re­quire at least the tacit ap­proval of se­nior of­fi­cials, some­thing that will re­quire po­lit­i­cal fi­nesse (or a thick skin) on the part of in­tel­li­gence lead­er­ship. Matt Ol­son, head of the Na­tional Coun­tert­er­ror­ism Cen­ter, made us all proud when he iden­ti­fied the Beng­hazi at­tack as ter­ror­ism, but his can­dor came with a bu­reau­cratic risk.

Congress may be of­fended, too. When I pub­licly re­leased the “Fam­ily Jewels,” a cat­a­log of past CIA mis­steps, and sug­gested it was be­cause of our so­cial con­tract with the Amer­i­can people, I was ver­bally beaten up the next day by the House Per­ma­nent Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence for “go­ing over their heads.”

So I get it; this will be hard. Do­ing it stupidly could be in­cred­i­bly dam­ag­ing be­cause many things have to stay se­cret.

And this is all easy enough for me to say since I’m out of govern­ment and I don’t have to im­ple­ment any­thing.

But at the mo­ment we are liv­ing with the strate­gic im­pact of in­di­vid­u­ally jus­ti­fi­able de­ci­sions to re­main silent, and that im­pact is an in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity that is less trusted and less ef­fec­tive than we need it to be.

It’s up to my old friends in the IC to set­tle on the fi­nal course of ac­tion, but oth­ers can and should con­trib­ute to this di­a­logue.

I’ll try to do that. I won’t be bleed­ing any se­crets in these com­men­taries but I will try to add some straight talk. I’m look­ing for­ward to it.

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