The Briefing

Publicly Defending Secret Intelligence Programs

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The government often does a poor job of defending its most secret intelligence programs when they become public through leaks.  There are some obvious and largely structural reasons for this, including that the agencies conducting the programs are not designed for public relations and that defending intelligence programs may require disclosing even more sensitive information than has been leaked.  The government also, however, tends to fall into some traps that may be avoidable, and an advantage of robust external oversight may be to help ensure that internal justifications will — if necessary — be persuasive to the public.

The most recent example of the government’s difficulty in publicly defending leaked intelligence programs is the telephony metadata program run by the National Security Agency, and disclosed in documents released by its former employee Edward Snowden to the media.  To some extent the government seemed to cripple itself for political reasons in mounting an aggressive defense in this case: the Obama White House took the position that this and other surveillance programs should be re-examined and it held senior officials back from some efforts at public debate.

Many of the problems the government experienced in defending this and related surveillance programs are not unique, though.  They resembled those that arose during other recent disclosures in which the government launched an aggressive and unapologetic public relations campaign, such as in the case of the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation program.

That the government, and especially the most secretive intelligence agencies, would be poorly suited and practiced to defend sensitive intelligence programs is unsurprising for several reasons.  First, intelligence agencies are culturally oriented toward secrecy and caginess, not toward working with the media and other public outlets. Second, mounting a public defense usually requires officially declassifying some program details or clearing sensitive information for public release.  Not only are these processes cumbersome — usually too slow for media cycles, and certainly much slower than the capacities of skeptics or opponents to launch critiques and allegations — but they have a watering-down effect that results in very general statements with scant detail to back them up.

When they do reach out publicly on intelligence issues, government officials  usually think they are being much more transparent than they are, or than it seems to those on the receiving end of information.  The result is that outreach efforts can backfire: journalists or advocacy group members invited for briefings can leave frustrated and led-on, rather than engaged.

One trap the government seems to fall into repeatedly is emphasizing false metrics for judging programs’ effectiveness.  A typical metric for counterterrorism intelligence programs that may seem initially tempting is “plots thwarted,” or terrorist attacks prevented by a program.  This is one that the NSA rushed to in the wake of the Snowden leaks, and that the Bush administration grasped in justifying its CIA black-site interrogations. (In the latter case, government officials also made the strange and, although pithy as a talking point, incomprehensible claim that half of the American government’s knowledge of al Qaeda structure and activities derived from this program.)

Thwarted plots might seem like a logical and easily stated measure of effectiveness, but they are difficult to substantiate publicly with details that withstand picking apart by skeptics.  Additionally, it’s not even clear whether a high number of foiled plots is positive or negative.  Most intelligence work is intended to disrupt terrorist groups’ activities well before they reach the advanced operational planning stages of a specific attack.  Of course, a high number of specific attacks foiled by a particular program would indicate that it’s been quite valuable, but a low number might also reflect a program’s value, too, in helping to disrupt or interdict terrorist groups’ planning, recruiting, funding and other activities in their early stages.

More fundamentally, focusing on whether any single intelligence program can be credited with stopping plots distorts the way intelligence works.  Effective counterterrorism intelligence is usually accomplished by integrating a variety of tools and their outputs, gathering and analyzing information streams in support of each other.  Again, it would be impressive if the government could point to many plots that were foiled singlehandedly by any intelligence program, but it might also suggest dangerously inefficient silos within the intelligence community.  Although it is a more difficult story to explain publicly, especially in sound-bite format, intelligence agencies would be better off explaining how intelligence tools work best in combination to put together as accurate a picture as possible for policymakers: generating as well as confirming information, ruling out as well as spotting leads or connections, and piecing together vast mosaics as well as identifying incipient attacks.

Intelligence agencies will probably never be very good at public affairs, but they are getting better.  Intelligence officials recognize that they must do so as secrets seem to be harder and harder to keep.  I recently participated, for example, in an informative set of briefings at the NSA by its senior officials, as part of a dialogue with outside experts organized by the University of Texas’s Strauss Center and Clements Center.  These types of discussions are important to informing indirectly the public debate.

Defenders of intelligence programs might be tempted to respond to these challenges of public debate by restricting even further access to the most sensitive programs.  One of the many advantages of external or independent oversight, however, is that it tests the persuasiveness of programs’ justifications.  In so doing, it lays important groundwork for, if and when necessary, communicating publicly about a program’s utility and cost-effectiveness.

Return to the Briefing daily for new insights from Peter BerkowitzBenjamin WittesJack GoldsmithJessica SternShavit MatiasTod LindberghRuth WedgwoodPhilip Bobbit, and Kenneth Anderson focusing on intelligence gathering in a digital age.