For all the talk over the last few years about the need to shed light on the workings of the intelligence community, the truth of the matter is “transparency” and “intelligence activities” are not natural bedfellows. Perhaps this is why, medical despite a flood of public rhetoric promising greater IC transparency, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper forbade his workforce last year from making unauthorized media contacts, or why many of the transparency initiatives undertaken thus far involve looking backwards, such as through document declassification, rather than at the present or future direction of the intelligence community.
Most thoughtful people understand that a fully transparent intelligence community is neither realistic nor desirable. What’s driving calls for greater transparency isn’t ill will toward intelligence professionals or even curiosity: rather, it’s a lack of trust. The ODNI’s ‘Principles of Intelligence Transparency’ seem to acknowledge this. However, merely shedding light on specific issues will only go so far to reshaping public perceptions.
The pursuit of ‘greater transparency’ for its own sake is a quixotic, if not disingenuous, goal for an industry that trades in secrets. Just because you know everything about a person doesn’t mean that you trust them. Trust is only built through consistency — and even then it takes time and persistence. By shifting the focus to “building trust” rather than to “increasing transparency,” the focus of reform efforts would thus shift from releasing information to engaging the public.
The intelligence community could then move from divining what the public may wish to understand toward actively shaping the way that it interacts with society. Increasing transparency is a reactive measure; building trust is active.
One way to positively shift the intelligence community’s interaction with the public is to apply select capabilities to domestic challenges. A fitting example already exists. Because of its dual role as a member of the intelligence community and a combat support organization, my former workplace, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), assists local authorities and the military on a host of issues, from natural disasters and land use issues to urban planning and navigation. The organization has successfully applied GEOINT—the art and science of placing information in a geographic context—to civilian world applications.
Through a public display of the value of its discipline, NGA—whose full capabilities are little understood and even less frequently discussed—keeps the public’s focus where it should be: on all of the good it does for average Americans.
To be sure, the legal environment that permits NGA to work on domestic problems is different from most IC organizations. But the increased availability of open-source information that paved the way for NGA’s approach has similarly created opportunities for other intelligence disciplines to use publicly available information to assist the public. In devising and advocating for the authority to apply the skills developed within their agencies to domestic problem sets, the intelligence community will take a step toward in dispelling its shadowy image.
Another way to build public trust is for the IC to provide clear and firm justifications for the existence of publicly disclosed programs—and before Congress forces the issue by holding hearings on the topic. Rather than acting like children caught with their hands in the cookie jar when unflattering leaks shed light on the government’s more sensitive capabilities, intelligence community leaders should explain, in plain terms, why just programs are essential to national security.
Keeping in mind that the details of many activities should remain protected, public debates about the role of the intelligence community are healthy and necessary for our democracy. A reluctance to engage in such conversations only increases public suspicion.
But actively engaging the public after leaks builds trust, protects the viability of important capabilities, and dulls the power of and saps motivation from future leakers. Much like during a polygraph interview, it’s not so much what has been done, but rather how information is handled that is the ultimate influencer of judgment. Sometimes, neither confirming nor denying does more harm than good.
Let’s face it: Americans have never been entirely comfortable with the existence of a permanent intelligence bureaucracy. A common narrative is that a secretive government runs counter to the ideals of democracy and liberty upon which our country was founded. When viewed through a practical lens, though, this perspective doesn’t hold much water.
Aside from all of the foreign threats mitigated by intelligence, many of the capabilities nurtured or developed within the intelligence community have had real applications to civilian life. Commercial imagery is one example; as are the tools and techniques used to analyze human networks and physical signatures. Yet all too often, intelligence community leaders are hostile toward or uncooperative with public inquiries — ask anyone who has ever submitted a FOIA request — and because the engagement of many agencies with the larger public is next to nil, they have nearly no constituency to back them up when they are forced into the limelight.
The permanent intelligence bureaucracy doesn’t have to be antithetical to the American idea—but only the intelligence community itself can dispel that notion. The better that the intelligence community demonstrates its value, and the more that, when appropriate, it justifies its capabilities to an inquisitive public, the more that Americans will be willing to trust those that are charged with protecting them.
So let’s stop calling for a transparency that’s unrealistic and rather rethink the way that the intelligence community builds trust with the taxpaying public that foots the bill. Transparency begets cheeky social media accounts, awkward speeches, press releases, and reams of declassified documents; engagement begets understanding and respect.
Knowledge may indeed still be power. But so is trust, and transparency simply won’t be enough to restore it.
Phillip Lohaus previously worked as an NGA analyst and as a defense consultant. He is currently a research fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on emerging national security issues and the U.S. government’s ability to address them. Phillip’s commentary and analysis on special operations forces, intelligence reform, and Middle East issues has been featured in The Hill, The National Interest, Bloomberg News,and Newsweek.