The move towards more constraints and more public oversight of U.S. intelligence gathering procedures sparked by Edward Snowden’s revelations is not in the United States’ best interests if it wishes to avoid intelligence failures, according to a former government intelligence community official who worked at the FBI during the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa and on the USS Cole. He spoke on the issue at a panel on terrorism and intelligence.
The move towards more constraints and more public oversight of U.S. intelligence gathering procedures sparked by Edward Snowden’s revelations is not in the United States’ best interests if it wishes to avoid intelligence failures, according to a former government intelligence community official who spoke on the issue at a panel on terrorism and intelligence.
The discussion, “Terrorism and Intelligence: Political, Legal, and Strategic Challenges,” was hosted by the Washington, D.C., Potomac Institute for Policy Studies to explore issues arising from Snowden’s disclosures, including the now public collection by the National Security Agency (NSA) of U.S. citizen’s phone record metadata.
Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to continue to allow the NSA to collect this data, but the risk that such authority could be curtailed due to public outrage remains.
The problem is that we are having “a debate in public that’s not helpful on either side,” said Dr. Donald Kerr, former principal deputy director of National Intelligence, who was the keynote speaker at the event. One problem, noted Kerr, who has held several key positions in the intelligence community, including serving as the assistant director of the FBI, is that the debate lacks “a clear discussion about the risks and benefits and constraints that attend the various activities that are being discussed.”
Another problem may be that the public perceives the threat against which these efforts are directed as increasingly remote. Kerr, who has seen the effects of a terrorist attack firsthand more than once, sees the threat as ever present. He told attendees that he joined the FBI soon after two U.S. embassies were bombed in Africa in 1998. “Face to face with where over 200 people died. It’s something you don't forget,” he said.
He was also in charge of investigating the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. “That to me was a turning point,” he said. But it took 9-11 to get the rest of the country and the world to see the threat the way that Kerr and other insiders did. Post 9-11, he explained, not only did the United States step up its own intelligence efforts, but other governments in “tens of other countries worldwide...quietly and effectively helped to fight worldwide terrorism that both threatens them and also continues to threaten the United States.” But those relationships “are severely threatened” by Snowden’s disclosures, which have been amplified by the press and others, he said. The problem, at a minimum, is that “When other governments are forced by their media to disclose what they know and what they do, it creates awkwardness,” he said.
Kerr emphasized that all the methods that the NSA has used to keep track of telephone records and metadata are legal and have been approved by Congress. But, he said, intelligence gathering works best when it is kept secret and not highly visible.
Gen. (Ret) Alfred Gray, the 29th commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, who also spoke at the event, agreed with Kerr’s sentiments and discussed that while more oversight might be favorable to some Americans, it would hinder the intelligence community’s ability to collect crucial data to keep the nation safe.
“Whatever you do, don’t let Congress, or anyone else, create regulations that prevent us from being quicker than the other guy,” Gray said. “In this world of cyber security, you don’t have eight months or eight days to get something approved – you’ve got about eight seconds.”
A third panelist, Mike S. Swetnam, CEO and chairman of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, spoke of the flip side of collecting intelligence, which is spreading false information via propaganda, and he noted how adversaries tend to be better at using modern technology to achieve their propaganda objectives. He also noted the importance of realizing how media coverage can inadvertently aid terrorists in spreading their propaganda message. And in that regard, he said that Snowden’s damage to the reputation of the United States by painting it and the NSA as bad because they invade privacy may be as significant in the propaganda war that is always ongoing as his actual damage to the intelligence capacity.
All of the panelists suggested that there needed to be a greater understanding of what the NSA does and why it should not be limited in collecting intelligence information. Public support for intelligence activities is important, said Kerr. But he acknowledged that it has always been an awkward relationship to have secret intelligence in a democracy.
Unlike an event earlier this month at the Washington, D.C. Newseum, there was no one to present the other side of the issue on this panel. But Kerr expressed the view that little real give and take is occurring in general public discussions. Unfortunately, he noted, “We are having not a discussion or a debate at the present time but we are having people shout at each other or past each other instead.” Everyone loses when that happens, he stated.
“I’m worried," he added, “that the inability of senior leadership to address this issue will cause harm over time.”
(Security Management Intern Megan Gates contributed to this report.)