A good intelligence system is critical in a democracy. There are people in this world who do not like us and who will do anything to cause us harm. Our country is safe and secure only if our intelligence agencies work well.
Intelligence in a democratic system is based on two premises. The first is secrecy; the government takes actions which must be secret. It is essential that we protect our intelligence methods and sources. We need methods to obtain pertinent information. Examples include Internet intercepts, human sources and perhaps phone conversations. If the American public knew what methods the intelligence agencies were using, so would the rest of the world, including our adversaries.
Then there are sources. Let us say we have a source in the Russia government who is providing valuable information on what President Vladimir Putin is doing and saying. If we identified that individual, he or she would be immediately arrested and probably not heard from again. A recent example is the Pakistani who helped us capture Osama bin Laden. After his role became public, he was sentenced to a long term in a Pakistani prison.
Intelligence can become unreal. Take our “cyber war” with China. If we bring up the cyber thefts, the Chinese will issue a denial or ask us for proof. Yet to tell them what we know would reveal our sources and methods, neutralizing them.
At base, our intelligence is only as good as the support it gets from citizens. Intelli-gence costs money, and while its budget is secret, it requires a populace prepared to sacrifice and pay money for “they know not what.” Also, public trust means most citizens believe that the CIA, NSA and other intelligence agencies are doing their jobs and avoiding politics. While the men and women in these agencies have their own political beliefs, they do not permit these orientations to get in the way of their work. They go out of their way to be “above politics.”
This brings us to PRISM, the program recently revealed by the Guardian, a British newspaper. PRISM was apparently launched in 2007. At the time Congress passed the Protect America Act in 2007 and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, private companies that cooperated with the intelligence agencies were “immunized.”
Based on the Guardian’s account, the court-approved program focuses on foreign communications traffic, which often passes through the United States. Under the Bush administration, the courts withdrew the need for the agencies to show probable cause. Instead the courts now certify periodically that “the government has reasonable procedures in place to minimize collection of information on U.S. persons” without a warrant.
James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, testified that the program was extremely valuable, stating, “Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats. The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans.”
So where does that leave us? I don’t believe this program is used to “spy” on people. President Barack Obama stated on May 10 that “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls.” He went on to note that there are very tight controls on the program, including rigorous judicial and congressional oversight.
I believe Obama is right., but there is a serious problem with the American public. Given what we know about the IRS manipulating tax procedures of some groups that oppose the Obama administration, what is to stop intelligence agencies from taking similar actions? How can people trust the Department of Justice to protect privacy after it obtained telephone and e-mail records of news reporters? This is a legitimate concern.
Obama has a difficult job ahead of him. He did not get out ahead of the IRS scandal. He tried to do that with the intelligence issues in San Francisco earlier this month. In order to restore faith in our intelligence agencies, Obama needs to ensure that steps are taken to rebuild Americans’ faith in the IRS and in federal investigations. Until then people will continue to fear intelligence agencies and their sources and methods.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat.