Secrecy News

Intelligence Transparency– But For What?

The new National Intelligence Strategy released last week by DNI Dan Coats affirms transparency as a value and as a strategic priority for U.S. intelligence.

The declared purpose of intelligence transparency is to raise public esteem for intelligence and to engender public trust. But because the policy is framed primarily as a public relations effort, the resulting transparency is limited unnecessarily.

“Through transparency we will strengthen America’s faith that the Intelligence Community seeks the truth, and speaks the truth,” DNI Coats said.

“This will be our hallmark, and I cannot stress this enough — this is not a limitation on us. This will make us stronger. It earns trust. It builds faith, and boosts our credibility around the world for our mission. It is the right thing to do,” he said on January 22.

The latest iteration of intelligence transparency was strongly shaped by the immediate post-Snowden environment, and it began, under then-DNI James Clapper, as an effort to restore public confidence which had been shaken by his disclosures. The legitimacy and legality of U.S. intelligence surveillance activities had been called into question, and the scope of domestic intelligence collection was revealed to a surprising new extent. In response, the intelligence transparency initiative therefore emphasized disclosure of IC legal authorities, oversight mechanisms, and the nature of IC electronic surveillance programs.

(Similar transparency has not extended to covert action, overhead reconnaissance, procurement, contracting, or numerous other areas. Declassification has been highlighted but has been preferentially focused on topics that are historically and substantively remote, such as the 1968 Tet Offensive.)

Has such transparency actually led to increased public trust in intelligence?

Data on the subject are sparse. It seems likely that most members of the public neither trust nor distrust intelligence agencies, being more concerned with other matters. However, increased transparency concerning surveillance practices has helped to focus current debate on real issues and pending policy questions rather than on more speculative topics.  There is a qualitative difference between the precision of the public debate over Section 215 surveillance authority and the foggy controversy over the reputed “Echelon” surveillance program of the 1990s.

Public trust may be conditional on some degree of transparency, and undue secrecy may engender suspicion. But it is doubtful that transparency by itself would generate increased trust. It might just as easily lead to heightened opposition.

Public trust is more likely to be produced as a byproduct of agency competence and integrity. Intelligence community leaders gained credibility and respect this week by publicly differing with the White House on North Korean denuclearization (assessed as “unlikely” to be completed), Iran’s nuclear weapons program (which is “not currently undertaking” steps needed to produce a nuclear device), among other divergent views expressed at the annual threat hearing held by the Senate Intelligence Committee. (The differences elicited an angry outburst from the President.)

In any case, building public trust is not the only possible rationale for intelligence transparency. Increasing public literacy in national security matters and enriching public debate offer an alternative, and more comprehensive, goal for future intelligence transparency efforts.

At a time when even basic factual matters are in dispute, the intelligence community could perform a public service — something analogous to what the Congressional Research Service does on a different plane — by routinely adding substantive information and analysis to the public domain. CIA and other agencies are sitting on a wealth of unclassified, open source material (which is sometimes utilized by CRS itself) that could easily be shared with the public at marginal cost.

It is possible that some unclassified, open source materials might be deemed sensitive and would therefore be withheld, either because their disclosure would reveal a specific target of intelligence collection or because they provide the US government with “decision advantage” of some kind.

But even allowing for such withholding, a vast array of existing unclassified open source intelligence analysis should be releasable. A grab bag of open source intelligence products that were obtained through unauthorized disclosures a decade ago illustrates the kind of materials that could be released on a near-daily basis.

“Whenever possible, we will share with the public the insight we offer to policymakers,” DNI Coats said last week. For now, there remains a great deal of useful but undisclosed intelligence material that should be possible to share with the public.