For all the ink that has been spilled over intelligence and interrogations in the last year, three critical questions have not been addressed and need to be soon, especially in light of recent events in Paris and the horror that is the Islamic State: What is the mission, what are the rules, and what is the tolerance for risk? Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently said the threat “is beyond anything we’ve faced,” and it is foolish to think an attack like we saw in Paris cannot happen here.
I have been an intelligence officer for more than 40 years, and I know that these are questions that can only be answered by elected officials, opinion makers and the American people. The answers are political decisions and have far-reaching implications that we as a nation must be willing to live with.
The mission question is really two questions: Where do you want the intelligence community to focus its limited resources, and how do you want to deal with the terrorism issue, specifically? If you see the United States as a global power with global interests, then you want a global intelligence capability and a global presence. It must be resourced accordingly.
If you believe the United States is principally threatened by terrorism and weapons of mass destruction — and we should not collect intelligence on friends — then the intelligence community needs to be structured and resourced to focus on those issues, much as we focused on the Soviet Union and Communist world during the Cold War. This, of course, increases the likelihood we will be surprised by Arab Spring-like developments in areas where we are not focusing.
With regard to terrorism, how do we want to approach it? Although we will always do some of both, do we want to play primarily defense or offense? If we see the terrorism threat as primarily a law enforcement problem, then we need to focus resources on the FBI, the larger law enforcement community, first responders, border security, infrastructure protection and public awareness. It is about preparing for and reacting to a threat, investigating after an event, and apprehending and prosecuting offenders. A defensive orientation also means we fight the war primarily on our own soil.
If we define the problem not as a law enforcement one but primarily as a war, then our approach — including the intelligence community’s — needs to be “taking the fight to the enemy.” This means more investment in special operation forces and covert action, more robust collection, more secrets, harder-to-measure impact, periodic lapses in judgment, and continuing public support from a populace that has never made up its mind about whether it likes or trusts people in the second-oldest profession. It also means working with people who do not always share our values, aims or methods. It is about pre-empting attacks, and eliminating those who plan and execute them.
What are the rules? And I am not talking just about apprehension and interrogation. Where are the lines that cannot be crossed? Rules matter. They define who we are as a people, and they are important protections for the men and women we send to do the intelligence mission.
I think we have come some distance in defining what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. Rules can change, though, and indeed, they need to keep pace with circumstances and where we are as a people. Still, they must be clear to all and acknowledged by all. No winks, no nods.
The intelligence community needs to be judged by the rules of the day. There can be no private acquiescence and then public shock. There should be no retroactive application of a new standard. To do so is to make risk aversion the only sensible behavior for the men and women on the frontline of this battle. That goes against their nature, and gives the advantage to those who would bring the war to us.
There also needs to be recognition that the bad guys will get lucky once in a while, just as they do in Europe, Israel and elsewhere. The response is to fix the problems, not search for culprits or to seek political advantage. This will be a long struggle marked by many successes, but the terrorists are also likely to have their moment or two. To think otherwise — to demand and expect otherwise — is to make the standard one of perfection.
The last question is probably the most important one: What is our tolerance for risk? Privacy and security are a continuum. Where do you want to put the marker? The more we move it toward security, the greater the potential for abuse by law enforcement and the intelligence community. The more we move it toward privacy, the more we limit the ability of law enforcement and the intelligence community to collect the information needed to prevent an attack. We are willing to take off our shoes to get on an airplane, but not to collect metadata on communications routed through the United States. Set it where you will, recognize the inherent risks you are signing up for, be prepared to live with them — and use them to judge law enforcement and the intelligence community.
• Martin Petersen spent 33 years with the Central Intelligence Agency and retired as deputy executive director.