- Dec 20, 2009
- Reaction score
- Political Leaning
This seemed like a fairly good discussion of some of the background issue
"What's really going on here?" That's the question I typically ask students to kick-start a discussion about some aspect of American intelligence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where I teach a graduate course on the subject....
Why are we so fascinated with this case? Why are some Americans outraged at the government while others are outraged at the leaker? Why do so many of us have such firm and passionate views about all of this?...
The bottom line is that intelligence, as a profession, still does not sit comfortably in our polity. There are a number of reasons for this.
First, the essential qualities of good intelligence inevitably clash with the underlying values of an open, pluralistic, and free society such as ours. The effectiveness of our democracy depends on an informed citizenry; effective intelligence depends on withholding and protecting information deemed sensitive. As citizens, Americans cherish their privacy; intelligence officers, subject to frequent background checks, polygraphs, and intrusive financial disclosure, are accustomed to giving it up... So as the curtain is pulled back on the NSA's surveillance program, many of us instinctively recoil -- and even some supporters wince a little. Meanwhile, prurient interest in the details skyrockets.
Second, we are a "young" intelligence nation, and intelligence is still the most novel tool in our foreign policy kit. The United States was the last major country to organize intelligence at the national level...
In other countries, intelligence still holds plenty of fascination for the public, but many older nations, unlike the United States, have domestic intelligence services and have integrated the profession more comfortably into their cultures. Besides, they do not "leak" intelligence at anywhere near the frequency that we do, so material with the potential to shock or startle is much less plentiful....
The surprise and shock provoked by this latest revelation is matched only by one little-appreciated irony: The United States is by far the world's most transparent nation on intelligence matters, and its spy services are without question the most closely and thoroughly overseen. Any adversary studying the frequent open congressional testimonies by intelligence officials, our daily press stories, our declassified intelligence publications, and our endless stream of leaks, would have to be hopelessly dim to not understand our priorities and deduce many of our methods.
For example, theannual threat assessment that the director of national intelligence must present publicly to Congress -- I have presented it myself -- is a serious and detailed document that gives away no actual secrets but is certainly a reliable guide to our intelligence priorities and the main lines of our analytic thinking, as are annual unclassified reports to Congress on subjects like the foreign ballistic missile threat. Foreign intelligence officials, who do not have such requirements, endlessly ask me: Why, in heavens name, do you Americans do this?....
Another aspect of American life laid bare by the current controversy is the wide gulf between intelligence professionals and those who ask why a leak like this does damage. To an experienced intelligence officer, it's the ultimate "duh" question -- a bit like asking if a flashlight might be helpful on a dark night. Sure, adversaries assume we do some of this, but they don't know how we do it or how effective we are. The typical intelligence officer asks: Why should we give any detail or confirmation to people trying to kill us when they volunteer nothing and rely on secrecy as their most effective asymmetric tool against our superior power? In the intelligence game, we succeed as much by fostering ambiguity and uncertainty as by our technical ingenuity...
So the controversy over surveillance reveals much about us as a nation and about the cultural divide between the intelligence profession and those with a different focus. Where does it go from here? A prediction: The surveillance program will be endlessly and publicly debated, investigated, eviscerated, and digested. In the end, we will all get comfortable with some not-so-very different version of it, perhaps buttressed by a more consensus-based legal foundation. In the process, we will have created a public guidebook to how we do this type of intelligence, and our citizens will be much more educated and sophisticated about our intelligence methods.
But so will those who want to know all of this even more desperately than we do. There is no having it both ways.