Opinion: Intelligence officer defends secrecy

August 19, 2013


Edward Snowden is now out of his limbo at Moscow’s airport, presumably ensconced in some Russian dacha, wondering what the next phase of his young life will bring. Having spent 30 years in the intelligence business, I fervently hope the food is lousy, the winter is cold, and the Internet access is awful. But I worry less about what happens to this one man and more about the damage Snowden has done — and could still do — to America’s long-term ability to strike the right balance between privacy and security.

Ever since Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, leaked top-secret material about its surveillance programs, he and the U.S. government have locked horns about the nature of those programs.

But those following the Snowden saga should understand two key points. First, though many things need to be kept secret in today’s dangerous world, the line between “secret” and “not secret” is fuzzy rather than stark, and if the goal is security, the harsh truth is that we should often err toward more secrets rather than fewer. Second, despite the grumbling from Snowden and his admirers, the U.S. government truly does make strenuous efforts not to violate privacy, not just because it respects privacy (which it does), but because it simply doesn’t have the time to read irrelevant emails or listen in on conversations unconnected to possible plots against American civilians.

Impossible situation

Incidents like the Snowden affair put my former colleagues in the intelligence community in an impossible position. Yes, the official explanations about the virtues of data-collection efforts can sound self-justifying and vague. But they’re still right. I know firsthand that Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director, is telling the truth when he talks about plots that have been preempted and attacks that have been foiled because of intelligence his agency collected. I know because I was on the inside, I have long held security clearances, and I participated in many of the activities he describes.

I spent years in the middle of the effort to identify, disentangle, and ultimately attack al-Qaida. We didn’t operate in secrecy because we were ashamed. We operated in the dark because we had to. Al-Qaida and its affiliates study our actions. They learn from our mistakes. America is safer because we’ve made a point of understanding their methods better than they understand ours.

I understand the trade-offs here. But the intelligence community isn’t keeping things from the American people because we don’t trust them, but rather because once important security information is out there, anyone can access it, including those who would do us harm.

That’s why I find the Snowden controversy so frustrating. I realize many Americans don’t trust their government. I wish I could change that. I wish I could tell people the amazing things I witnessed during my 30 years in the CIA, that I’ve never seen people work harder or more selflessly, that for little money and long hours, people took it for granted that their flaws would be scrutinized and their successes ignored. But I’ve been around long enough to know that deep-rooted distrust of government is immune to stories from people like me. The conspiracy buffs are too busy howling in protest at the thought that their government could uncover how long they spent on the phone with their dear aunt.

Your aunt’s not the target

Let me break this to you gently. The government is not interested in your conversations with your aunt, unless, of course, she is a key terrorist leader. More than 100 billion emails were sent every day last year — 100 billion, every day. In that vast mass of data lurk a few bits that are of urgent interest and vast terabytes of tedium that are not. Unfortunately, the metadata (the phone numbers, length of contact, and so forth, but not the content of the conversations) that sketch the contours of a call to your family member may fall into the same enormous bucket of information that includes information on the next terrorist threat. As Jeremy Bash, the former chief of staff of the CIA, memorably put it, “If you’re looking for a needle in the haystack, you need a haystack.”

Unfortunately, during the Snowden affair, many news outlets have spent more time examining ways the government could abuse the information it has access to while giving scant mention to the lengths to which the intelligence community goes to protect privacy. We have spent enormous amounts of time and effort figuring out how to disaggregate the important specks from the overwhelming bulk of irrelevant data.

System well monitored

This is done under tight and well-thought-out strictures. I witnessed firsthand the consequences of breaking the privacy rules of my former organization, the National Counterterrorism Center. As the center’s deputy director, I had to fire people, good people, and remove others from their posts for failing to follow the rules about how information could be accessed and used. It didn’t happen often, and it was never a malicious attempt to gather private information. We had mandatory training and full-time staffers to supervise privacy regulations. We used precious resources to hire lawyers and civil liberties experts to oversee our efforts. And on those few occasions when we made mistakes, the punishments were swift and harsh.

Yes, some things that are classified probably don’t need to be. That may undermine public trust and dilute our ability to protect the data that really need protecting. But some things — especially U.S. sources and methods — must be kept secret. Snowden didn’t offer fresh insight about a massive policy failure. Rather, he took upon himself the authority to decide what tradecraft the intelligence community needs to keep his fellow citizens safe. Sadly, Snowden has captured the public’s imagination and attention, and the government’s reaction now seems too little, too late and too reactive. But the intelligence community — always a less sympathetic protagonist than a self-styled whistle-blower — actually has a good story to tell about how seriously the government takes privacy issues. We should tell it.

— Andrew Liepman, a senior analyst at Rand Corp., was a career CIA officer and is a former deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.


jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

I'm not convinced.

For example, if it's really terrorist leaders and groups that we're after, we can monitor communications with them, after showing probable cause to a judge to monitor their communications. That way, if your aunt calls them, we catch her.

There's just no reason to monitor her (and all the rest of us) all the time.

It would also be much easier and cheaper that way, I would think.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

I would think it difficult to find a needle in a haystack if it were your position to ignore haystacks and focus only on needles.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

I think it's the other way around, actually.

Unless somebody contacts a known or suspected terrorist, how can the government get any useful information from their phone records?

For example, I call you, and the government records that information. What have they gained? Nothing, unless one of us contacts somebody suspicious. So, it would be sufficient to monitor suspicious folks.

Then, if you've contacted somebody suspicious, you are added to the list.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

You or I or your Aunt Millie might be the needle in the haystack. If the government ignores us completely, they will never find us.

On January 20th, every four years, the President swears to uphold the Constitution. Then he gets his first security briefing and finds that in order to protect 320 million Americans, he might have to loosely interpret that oath. I'm thankful every day I don't have to live with that responsibility. And yes, I believe that Obama cares about the general welfare of all Americans, just as I believed it true when Bush was President and Clinton before him.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

Please read my comment again, and explain how we wouldn't find people who contact terrorists or suspected terrorists if we're monitoring their communications.

And, "loosely interpreting" the oath is highly problematic - it generally means not upholding it.

Also, it's very nice that you have such faith in our presidents, but I can't imagine why you do, given many of their actions.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

You or I or your Aunt Millie might not be contacting terrorists if we're the terrorists.

Yes, it is highly problematic. Balancing the Constitution with the safety of millions of people can test even the most patriotic amongst us. Thankfully, I don't have that responsibility. And you don't either. But Presidents do. I'm willing to cut them some slack, given the nature of their responsibilities.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago


Right now, all the government collects is "metadata" on the vast majority of communications. They only look more closely at suspicious people, right? So, if Aunt Millie is a terrorist and they don't know it, they'll only find her if she contacts somebody suspicious. Which means that monitoring her metadata isn't any more helpful than just monitoring the communications of the suspicious people.

If she calls Uncle Bob, and they're in on something together, the government will not find it, if neither one is on some sort of list that raises a red flag.

So, it's not useful or necessary to monitor their metadata - all we have to do is monitor the suspicious stuff - people or places that are suspicious. As people contact those, the list grows to include them, of course.

I understand what you're saying about presidents - it's a heck of a job, and I'm not sure I'd want it either. But given the power involved, and the possibility for abuse, I also want to make sure that's not being abused.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

I certainly don't want the power abused either. And if it were true that the President was doing this on his own, I'd be more suspicious. But there is oversight by both Congress as well as the courts. That makes me feel better.

As to your Aunt Millie, if in the past year or so, her calls were of a fairly routine manner, calling Uncle Bob at work, calling her best friend, that sort of stuff, no alarms would be triggered. If, however, she suddenly started making 3-4 calls per day to Yemen, an alarm might sound. Now maybe Uncle Bob got a contract to do a job over there. Maybe she's been radicalized. But without that bit of information about her calls, we'll never know.

I am a little troubled by the government monitoring our calls. I'm also troubled by planes flying into our buildings, doctors shooting up military bases, and running events being turned into targets for radicalized bombers. There's a balance somewhere in there. And since I'm not confronted with having to strike that balance, I'm willing to give a little slack to those who do have that responsibility.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

Well, according to what I've read, the oversight is rather flawed.

I thought we were talking about intranational calls, not international ones. The idea that we should perhaps monitor international calls, especially to terrorist friendly/related nations, makes more sense to me. But, again, we don't have to monitor everybody's calls to everywhere to do that.

That's how power gets abused - people are willing to "give a little slack" to those in charge, for a variety of reasons, including fear.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

Intelligence gathering is like having a couple of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and trying to visualize what the picture is. And frankly, Jafs, if they don't see the complete picture after viewing a couple of pieces, we the public vilify them. Look what happened after the Boston Marathon bombing when it became known that the brothers had been on our radar prior to the bombing. I just hate putting people in a no-win situation and then criticize them when they don't win. Intelligence gatherers were vilified after 9/11. They were vilified after Pearl Harbor. Again and again. But we also want absolute pristine adherence to the Constitution. Of course when thousands of lives are on the line, like in 9/11, a slightly loose interpretation by the Executive Branch, with oversight by the Legislative Branch and the Judicial Branch might be the cost of those thousands of lives. And since I don't have the weight of that responsibility on my shoulders, well, the world isn't perfect. Compromises need to be made sometimes.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

The point for me is that I want them to do a good job, but without unnecessarily cutting into our civil liberties.

In this case, that seems quite possible to me, as I've described.

Clearly, pre-9/11, even with all of the information collected, there were serious problems caused by the lack of co-operation and co-ordination among various intelligence agencies/entities.

That's a problem that can and should be solved, in my opinion. And, perhaps now, it's a bit better, although I'm not sure that a new department needed to be created.

I still haven't heard any compelling reason that they need to monitor the metadata from all of our calls - do you have anything more on that idea?

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

The question is this, Jafs, suppose we did get some useful information. Suppose we decided to infiltrate some terrorist cell, or fed them disinformation, or maybe we sent in a drone, would the government then tell us all how it was done, alerting future terrorists of our methods? Just because you or I haven't heard of any compelling reason doesn't mean no compelling reason exists.

The nature of that business is that even when a doing a good job, even doing a great job, they're still just going to be working with a limited number of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It took us years to find the most wanted person in the world. Intelligence gathering isn't like adding two plus two.

BTW - In the aftermath of 9/11 and the reorganizing of several government agencies under the banner of Homeland Security, I was listening to a report (on NPR) about how we reorganized after WW II under the Defense Dept. banner. It took a couple of generations for everyone to get organized. Saying it could and should be solved by now might be a bit of wishful thinking.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

Suppose and suppose, and maybe, and national security prohibits us from knowing, etc.

And, just because we haven't heard any reason doesn't mean a compelling one doesn't exist.

And, just because we didn't find WMD, it doesn't mean he didn't have them.


It took a long time to "find" Bin Laden partly because Bush got us into a war with Iraq, who had nothing to do with him, and because he stopped looking - remember the line about how Bin Laden was irrelevant?

I didn't say it should be solved "by now" - I just said it should be solved.

The problem with your position is that it requires us to trust politicians, who have shown over and over again that they're not particularly trustworthy, and can be counted on to abuse their power.

I said I wasn't convinced by this column, and pointed out that we could get the necessary information without monitoring the metadata of everybody's calls. So far I remain unconvinced.

You're the one who talks about how government bureaucracies tend to expand, and get inefficient. Do you think that doesn't apply to the military, NSA, or Homeland Security?

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

Yes, I generally believe the government acts in our best interest, though they do so in an very inefficient manner. So, yes, I believe we needed to move from a Dept. of War, Dept. of the Army, Dept. of the Navy to a combined Dept. of Defense. And no it doesn't surprise me that it would take years to do it. Yes, I believe there was a need to move to Homeland Security, no it won't surprise me if it takes many, many years. Yes, I believe that the targets of those drone attacks are some pretty bad people. No, I don't think that's the only people killed. Yes, I think the wars on poverty or drugs were well intentioned. No, I don't think they're ever going to win those wars.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

So, you think that the DOD and Homeland Security are efficient?

Also, HS isn't analogous to the DOD, if your portrayal is correct. It's an extra new agency, on top of the ones we already had, like the FBI, CIA, NSA, etc. Seems to me that if the problem was lack of communication and coordination, those could have been improved without adding an entirely new agency.

How can you believe the government acts in "our best interest", assuming one can agree on what that would be, when different administrations and policies have different effects on us?

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

No, I don't think DOD or HS are efficient. Frankly, I can't think of any government run program that is efficient. But that's not to say we don't need any government programs. Nor is it license to simply run as inefficiently as they wish. There must be a middle ground.

While different administrations may set different policies, I don't think their differences are as great as we might assume. The differences are usually pretty small. There are exceptions to that rule, but even when there are exceptions, I don't think one is good and the other evil. Rather, it's a legitimate difference of opinion. I may agree with one opinion or the other, but I respect the people who differ from me. Honest people can have honest disagreements. Not so much in this forum, where the anonymous nature lends itself to bombast, but when I see former Presidents Clinton and Bush, Sr. working together to solve problems, raise money for good causes, bring attention to problems that need solving, then I know that whatever policy differences there were were not as great as we might imagine.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

So, in response to terrorism, Bush created a completely new agency, inefficient, instead of simply improving communication and co-ordination between existing agencies, went to war with Iraq instead of looking for Bin Laden, and declared him irrelevant.

You don't think that a different president might have just improved inter-agency cooperation, and looked for Bin Laden, and/or that that would have been significantly different?

There are certain commonalities, of course, between different administrations, but also significant differences, in my view - that's what makes voting important. We can have more wars and less diplomacy, or the reverse, to use a rather broad and perhaps oversimplified example.

Domestically, the differences are even more evident, and affect us all, directly or indirectly. When I was younger, I used to think that politics didn't make a difference in my life, and so I didn't care about it. As I got older, I realized that it affects me indirectly, if not directly, and that it affects other people quite a bit, and so I care more about it now.

The recent privatization of Medicaid in KS is affecting my wife very directly, and in a negative way, and so it's very clear to me how politics affects people. If we could afford to retire now, and leave KS, we very well might.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

Bush's actions in regards to the creation of Homeland Security was very much like the creation of the Dept. of Defense. There were already several agencies charged with intelligence gathering, just like there were several departments charged with waging war. Several already existing agencies were rolled into one, with both Homeland Security and Defense.

I could give you my opinion about whether that was necessary or not, but frankly, I'm not skilled enough to give an intelligent answer. I've never run a government. I wasn't privy to cost estimates. I didn't get briefings from career experts in those fields. I might as well practice medicine because my Aunt Millie once had cancer. Can you say whether the creation of the Dept. of Defense after WW II cost us more money than if we had stayed with Depts. of Army, Navy, War, etc.? Can you say it's a better or worse system? Unless you've spent your entire life studying the issue, Jafs, you can't say either way. While I respect your opinion, Presidents do have access to those who have studied the issues their entire lives. Of course, Congress has access to experts of their own. And when they concur with the President, it lends credence to that position.

Back to Bush, while you criticize him for creating a new, inefficient system, please remember that it was the old system that allowed 9/11. So again, whether you think the exact steps may or may not have been the correct ones, clearly something needed to change. A different President might have done what you suggest, better inter-agency cooperation, or he may not. A different President might have come to the exact same conclusions as Bush did, as Congress did.

I find it interesting, Jafs, that in our frequent conversations, you mention leaving Kansas and going someplace new. What I find curious is that you've said you've lived in several places and you don't mention returning there. I think it's curious that the grass is always greener in the fields where you've never been, but not in the fields where you have been. I, too, have lived in several states. I have traveled abroad, though not recently. What I've found is that everyplace has some good things and some bad. New York does, Chicago, Lawrence and wherever you go next. Shangri-la exists only in your mind. Maybe your next destination will provide better Medicaid, but it will be lacking in something else. If Shangri-la really existed, we'd all go there, which would cause it to cease being what we all want.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

Yes, a different president might have come to the same conclusion, but also might have come to a different one. That kind of undercuts your idea that there aren't differences between administrations.

I have lived in different places at different times in my life, and have liked some a lot, and others not so much. I loved growing up in NYC, but could never live there now - I've gotten used to space, lower costs of living, fewer people, etc. I disliked Chicago for pretty much the whole time I was there, so I wouldn't return there. It's true, of course, that different places have different positive and negative aspects, but that doesn't mean that some places aren't better to live than others, depending on one's priorities, needs, etc.

That's an interesting comment about everybody moving somewhere causing it to be undesirable - it assumes that we don't actually all want to live together. I don't know if it's true or not, but it's interesting.

If we were retiring, then Medicaid wouldn't be an issue for us anymore. We could, in fact, stay here if we wanted to - we love our neighborhood and our house, and have found a number of good things as far as shopping, eating out, etc. here. The downside is that we don't get to see family very much. When I was younger, that wasn't as important to me, but as I've aged, it's become more important.

So, someplace rather similar to Lawrence, but perhaps with more amenable politics (there are other ways in which the current KS political climate isn't attractive to us), and closer to family would certainly be an improvement for us.

You can choose however you like - if Lawrence is the best place for you to retire, then by all means, do that.

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