Should the United States engage in secret, covert or clandestine activity if the American public cannot be convinced of the necessity and wisdom of such activities should they be leaked or disclosed?
To intelligence professionals, that’s a bizarre question. The answer is that the public’s opinion shouldn’t matter, because espionage, clandestine intercepts of intelligence and covert acts carried out by the United States and other governments are often, by their nature, dirty and mostly illegal operations where they are carried out.
The prime reason for secrecy is that you don’t want the targets to know what you are doing. But often in democracies, another reason is that you don’t want your citizens to know what their government is doing on their behalf to keep them secure, as long as it’s within their country’s law.
“Accountability and secrecy” were two watchwords a former senior intelligence official said guided operations during his 40-year career, not whether the public would approve of everything he was doing.
However, that’s not what President Barack Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies said last week after its study of intelligence-gathering in the wake of disclosures generated by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s leaking of tens of thousands of previously secret NSA documents.
The president’s five-member panel called for reinstituting what it called the “Front-Page Rule,” which it described as an “informal precept, long employed by the leaders of U.S. administration.” It said such activities should not be undertaken if the public couldn’t support them if exposed.
In some 40 years of covering intelligence, I have never heard of such a rule, nor have several former senior intelligence officials with whom I have talked.
The closest we recalled is the old rule of “plausible deniability,” which came out of the CIA in the 1950s, after then-President Dwight Eisenhower had to backtrack after publicly denying knowledge of the intelligence purpose of U-2 flights over Russia after the shootdown of one. Plausible deniability, in CIA rhetoric, was an approach that allowed a president to deny knowledge of an intelligence operation that went bad by saying he knew nothing about it, leaving those carrying out the activity to take the blame for failure or exposure.
Then there was the “Webster Rule,” named for then-CIA Director Judge William Webster, which held that operations, especially covert action, must be clearly supportive of U.S. policy if exposed and evoke a public reaction of “good for us.”
Today, within the ranks of the intelligence community, there is concern that, in the face of the political uproar growing out of the Snowden disclosures, Obama might be backing away from the NSA after initially supporting the agency. “The White House may be looking to escape responsibility,” the former official said, adding that recently not enough public support has been given to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, who are out front defending the programs.
There are other recommendations and statements put forward by the president’s review board that run contrary to past and present operations.
For example, the panel said a collection effort should not be initiated “if a foreign government’s likely negative reaction” to it being revealed “would outweigh the value of the information likely to be obtained.” That’s a judgment call that every CIA officer, from junior to senior, routinely makes.
Like the previously mentioned Front-Page Rule, former intelligence officials shake their head over the idea that worry about exposure has become so great that the panel is proposing establishment of a Sensitive Activities Office within the Office of Director of National Intelligence to “review collection activities for ‘sensitive’ activities on an ongoing basis.”
Underlying this idea is that intelligence-collection managers “might not always be aware that what they are doing or planning might fall into a category that makes it sensitive in the eyes of policymakers,” such as head-of-state meetings or negotiations.
Both policymakers and intelligence-collection managers would be included, but the office staff would also have nonsecurity representatives from the commercial side of government — reflecting, I assume, concerns voiced by Internet and telecommunication companies to the current NSA disclosures.
The president’s review board writes that “if we are too aggressive in our surveillance policies under section 702 (a program that permits collection of intelligence from foreign targets associated with terrorists), we might trigger serious economic repercussions for American businesses.”
The disclosure that the NSA has targeted the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other national leaders has the president’s board recommending more caution in undertaking such efforts, but it argues that it be undertaken “with great care.”
The panel notes that “the president’s own communications are a collection target for many nations, friendly and otherwise,” but it does not go further. Remember the stories last month about the president taking a tent with him when he travels abroad for use, even inside hotel suites, so that electronic barriers are set up to prevent his conversations, even those encrypted, from being intercepted?
One matter missing in the debate over the NSA’s activities is what other countries are doing in this field — listening to what American officials are saying or writing, not just abroad but here in the United States. Most every American embassy abroad has a sealed room, so that secret conversations cannot be overheard. One reason the Russian Embassy compound is on one of Washington’s highest points is so its communications-interception facilities can target government buildings in the area.
What would we be writing and reading about if a Chinese Snowden, or Russian, French or Israeli Snowden, leaked thousands of documents about those countries’ intercept collections activities? I’m waiting, and it could very well happen.
Meanwhile, as another former senior official put it: “We are heading into the perfect storm. … The administration seems unlikely to stand up to foreign disapproval. Congress will demand ‘rules.’ And the Republicans and Democrats will do whatever seems most expedient politically.”
Walter Pincus is a national security journalist for The Washington Post.