Secrecy News

DNI Says Build Trust in Intelligence Through Transparency

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats recently revised a 2012 Intelligence Community Directive (ICD) on “Civil Liberties and Privacy” to address transparency policy, and reissued it as “Civil Liberties, Privacy, and Transparency.”

The revised directive ICD 107 states that “the DNI is committed to protecting civil liberties and privacy and promoting greater public transparency, consistent with United States values and founding principles as a democratic society.”

ICD 107 now mandates “external engagements” with the public; it calls for use of “new technologies to make intelligence information. . . accessible to the public. . . with sufficient clarity and context so that it is readily understandable”; and it directs that IC agencies shall describe to the public “why certain information can and cannot be released.”

In a March 22 memorandum to agencies announcing the revised directive, DNI Coats said that “With the reissuance of ICD 107, we have firmly established transparency as a foundational element of securing public trust in our endeavors, alongside the protection of civil liberties and privacy.”

As indicators of recent progress in transparency, the DNI cited the relaunch of the Intelligence.gov website that provides information about IC agencies; a new historical declassification program that will review records concerning the 1968 Tet Offensive; and new details regarding oversight and use of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

But while these are all commendable steps, they do not seem well calculated to achieve the goal of “securing public trust.”

Building trust requires more than public relations or even declassification of historical documents. Remarkably, dozens of breakthroughs in transparency during the Obama Administration did little to generate trust and were largely ignored and unappreciated.

Trust building depends on a willingness to be held accountable, and on responsiveness (not just unilateral gestures) to overseers and the public.

Transparency for trust-building should therefore stress what lawyers call “admissions against interest,” or disclosures that could risk placing the agency in an unfavorable light, at least initially, but that would build credibility over time. Such disclosures might include regular release of compliance reports regarding suspected deviations from law or policy, investigative reports or summaries from intelligence agency Inspectors General, and the like.

Public trust could also be strengthened positively by responsively adding value to public discourse. The intelligence community could help foster a constructive relationship with the public by routine publication of open source intelligence products, and by setting up an orderly process for responding to substantial public interest in topics of current intelligence importance or controversy (beyond Section 702).

A panel discussion on “Building and Sustaining Democratic Legitimacy” in intelligence was held last week as part of a symposium organized by the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Update: Some follow-on thoughts about steps that the Intelligence Community has already taken to increase transparency are here.

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