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.”