We all know the story: A liberal government finds itself embarrassed by intelligence collection activities. So it appoints a senior panel of Wise Men to recommend reforms. The Wise Men rein in the intelligence community, proscribing a series of practices that had once been the bread and butter of collection. The intelligence community feels betrayed, micromanaged, and unvalued.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s the beginning of John LeCarre’s famous book, Smiley’s People.

The context in the book is a bit different from our current controversies over the president’s Review Group, the NSA, and bulk metadata collection. LeCarre’s story is about British intelligence officers, not American. Its background is the Cold War confrontation with the Soviets. And the controversies in it involve human intelligence collection, not technical collection.

Yet for me anyway, Chapter 4 of Smiley’s People is a kind of urtext of our current situation — a piece of fiction that captures nearly all of the forces now operating in the NSA debates with an economy of words nothing else I have read compares with. In the key exchange, Oliver Lacon, a political overseer of the service, explains to George Smiley, who has been plucked from retirement in the middle of the night after a former agent is murdered: “[Y]our successor [as head of the agency] decided on certain far-reaching changes of intelligence practice.” Lacon expounds at some length. The following excerpts offer a flavor:

“One of the less controversial exercises of the Wise Men, George — one of their first duties — conferred upon them specifically by our masters — enshrined in a jointly drafted charter — was stock-taking. To review the [agency’s] resources worldwide and set them beside legitimate present-day targets.”

. . .

Lacon hesitated a moment longer, then continued: “Now as a result of this axe-laying — this stock-taking, if you prefer — on the part of the Wise Men, certain categories of clandestine operation have been ruled ipso facto out of bounds. Verboten. Right?”

Prone on his sofa, Strickland incanted the unsayable: “No coat-trailing. No honey-traps. No doubles. No stimulated defections. No émigrés. No bugger all.”

After listening to a bit more, particularly about how the émigré groups — one of which his dead former agent previously headed — had been “dustbinned,” Smiley finally responds: “What utter nonsense.”

There is a big difference between LeCarre’s story about the Wise Men and our current fracas — and that is the reader’s point of engagement. In our story, we are still playing out the phase of Wise Men reforms, the phase during which we all stroke our collective beard and make lists of practices that we declare “ipso facto out of bounds,” “verboten,” or disallowed absent “consent in writing from the Chief. Copy to the weekly float for the Wise Men’s inspection.”

By contrast, Smiley’s People engages the story a bit later, when there is a body and when the recriminations are beginning. The reader sees the story through Smiley’s eyes, the eyes of a person not party to the “far-reaching changes of intelligence practice” and to whom — particularly with the death of his agent — the Wise Men's wisdom is a matter of contemptible naiveté.

We have not yet reached this phase of recriminations, the point at which we look back on our wisdom and pronounce it utter nonsense. But I fear that we will. And I worry that no part of our current wisdom will look sillier or more naïve than the way we have come to use words like “transparency” and “secrecy.”

In our current debate, we talk about transparency and secrecy as though the former were a self-evident good and the latter were a self-evident evil. But in clandestine intelligence work, by the very nature of the tasks at hand, it is far from obvious that one wants to maximize transparency, and operational security — read: secrecy — is often the pivotal difference between success and failure. In other words, if you’re going to open up the intelligence community, you need a theory about where secrecy is a bad thing and where it’s a good thing.

Neither our current retrenchment of intelligence authorities nor the push to disclose a lot of material about them is well theorized. We are disclosing a large volume of information and rolling back surveillance authorities without a clear vision — at least not clear to me — of what sort of material we should be making public and what sort of lawful authorities we should be putting off limits. The impulses driving these decisions, rather, are highly reactive to bad press and negative blowback from individual governments.

I’m not saying that no recalibration is in order right now. To the contrary, if the intelligence community cannot keep its secrets about activity that causes enormous damage when it becomes public, some recalibration is necessary — a fallback to positions that are more defensible when revealed. But it should be a recalibration both as to disclosures and as to substance that is thought through at a philosophical level. What sort of activity are we going to refrain from? What sort of activity that we used to conduct in secret are we now going to conduct, at least in broad policy terms, in the open — and are we willing to have less effective SIGINT in order to do that SIGINT more in public? For that matter, why should not the same theory imply retrenchment in other intelligence spheres? Should we be disclosing in broad policy terms our human intelligence capabilities and programs too and curtailing those HUMINT programs that would embarrass us if revealed? And if not, why not? Is there some theoretical difference between stealing secrets electronically and stealing secrets by human hands?

Most important, are we going to stand by our retrenchment when there’s a body? These decisions, after all, will have operational consequences. They will produce a net loss in intelligence effectiveness. And there will come a time when we face a reckoning for the choices we are making. Will we at that point stand by the work of our Wise Men? Or will we, with Smiley, pronounce it all “utter nonsense”?

Return to the Briefing daily for new insights from Jack GoldsmithMatthew WaxmanJessica SternShavit MatiasTod LindberghRuth WedgwoodPhilip Bobbit, and Kenneth Anderson focusing on intelligence gathering in a digital age.

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