Secrecy News

Intelligence Transparency to Build Trust: A Postscript

Increasing transparency in intelligence may help to build public trust, as Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said last month. But not all acts of transparency are likely to have that effect to the same degree, if at all.

Some of the most powerful trust-building actions, we suggested, involve “admissions against interest,” or voluntary acknowledgements of error, inadequacy or wrong-doing.

We should have noted that the Intelligence Community has already adopted this approach up to a point in connection with surveillance activity under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

For example, a number of classified reports on (non-)compliance with Section 702 have been declassified and published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in lightly redacted form.

These and other official disclosures provided sufficient detail, for example, to enable preparation of “A History of FISA Section 702 Compliance Violations” by the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation.

Compliance issues are also addressed in opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, many of which have now been partially declassified and published. An April 2017 FISC opinion posted by ODNI concerned a case of “significant non-compliance with the NSA’s minimization procedures.”

This uncommon transparency is notably focused on Section 702 which, important as it is, is only a slice of Intelligence Community activity. And some of the disclosures are not entirely voluntary as they follow from Freedom of Information Act litigation. (The IC Inspector General also intermittently publishes summaries of its own investigative work in semiannual reports.)

Nevertheless, the disclosures provide a proof of principle, and suggest how more could be done in other areas. Did these “admissions against interest” also build public trust? There are no known data to support such a conclusion. But at a minimum, they did serve to focus attention on actual, not speculative problem areas.

The revision and reissuance of Intelligence Community Directive 107 should help to institutionalize and expand the role of transparency in supporting intelligence oversight and public accountability.

DNI Coats said yesterday that he would “declassify as much as possible” concerning the controversial professional background of Gina Haspel, who has been nominated to be CIA Director.

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