The Blessings of Secrecy
In February 1996, Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch gave an unclassified worldwide threat briefing to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Although intelligence leaders had occasionally provided similar overviews in the past, Deutch’s briefing set the pattern for what would become an annual event. Over the last quarter century, we have become accustomed to this tour d’horizon — a ritualized glimpse into the issues that keep analysts up at night.
Some intelligence officials apparently want to end the ritual. Last month Politico reported that officials within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence are pushing to remove the public portion of the briefing, perhaps in an attempt to avoid a public confrontation with President Donald Trump. Last year, their open testimony contradicted Trump’s statements on Russia, Iran, North Korea, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The next day he tweeted, “Perhaps intelligence should go to school!” Intelligence officials may fear that another dust-up with the White House will make it difficult to have any useful influence on the policy process.
Critics warn against ending the briefing, even if they sympathize with the intelligence community’s dilemma. Longtime intelligence official Paul Pillar calls the unclassified statement “the single most important public product the community has to offer, and it needs to continue and to be presented to Congress in a highly visible way.” Routine public presentations are intrinsically valuable because they soothe the inherent tension between secret intelligence and democratic norms. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who has invited Acting Director Joseph Maguire to testify before the House Intelligence Committee, says that it provides an “important broad understanding of how threats have evolved and what the nation can expect in the year to come.” (Maguire reportedly demurred, though negotiations about the structure of this year’s assessment are ongoing.) Other critics argue that public briefings may reveal daylight between intelligence conclusions and presidential statements. Public dissent is important because it reassures nervous analysts, policy elites, and foreign allies that that there is underlying stability in American foreign policy.
These arguments reflect an ongoing push for greater transparency. Intelligence agencies have become much more visible since the end of the Cold War, both in the United States and abroad. This is a welcome trend for those who warn that hiding the truth makes cooperation difficult and increases the chances of conflict — most notably liberal international relations theorists. Less information means more mistrust, they say, prompting arms races and military crises. Secrecy also closes off avenues to rational settlements of political disputes, paving the way for violence instead. Transparency alone does not guarantee international stability, but it makes it much easier for leaders to work together. Information about one another reduces fear that other states are cheating on agreements, passing the buck instead of fulfilling their obligations, and in some cases plotting against them. These ideas have a long pedigree. The basic belief in the value of transparency is central to the idea of an enlightened liberal peace. “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at,” was the first of President Woodrow Wilson’s “fourteen points.”
This transparency movement is also good news for government watchdogs. From their perspective, rules that enable secrecy serve as a convenient shield for second-rate bureaucrats. Secrecy allows them to operate in the shadows, and to cover up embarrassing and even illegal blunders. In more banal moments they insist on secrecy because they fear that information will somehow be used against them. Wiser officials have no need to hide behind such protections. As Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, “Secrecy is for losers.”
There is undoubtedly truth in that statement: Unscrupulous officials may abuse secrecy in ways that undermine democratic norms (and lead to bad policy). This does not mean, however, that transparency is an unalloyed good. Nor does it mean that secrecy is always bad. Secrecy serves many purposes for intelligence agencies, including the protection of sources and methods, and a responsible approach to protecting information is the foundation of their work. It can also enable a more rational policy process and contribute to international stability. Secrecy, it turns out, has a lot going for it.
Keeping secrets from public view can improve the quality of statecraft. It encourages candor among policymakers and their advisors, who are more likely to speak truth to power if they can do so quietly. Those in power are more willing to accept the truth if they do not fear that it will undermine their political future. When the public expects that intelligence estimates will be part of the public debate, however, policymakers will have powerful incentives to politicize the process. Similarly, intelligence officials with strong policy preferences may be tempted to slant their own findings to sway the public debate.
Emerging scholarship suggests that keeping secrets makes it easier for states to get along. Secrecy facilitates arms control in peacetime, because states are more likely to comply with agreements if they do not fear revealing military capabilities that could make them more vulnerable in a future conflict. The aftermath of the Gulf War offers a good illustration. Saddam Hussein tried to obstruct weapons inspections in Iraq during the 1990s in part because he feared revealing information that would put his personal security at risk. Greater openness would reveal not just Iraq’s weakness, but could provide targeting information to Iraq’s foes in the event of a war. Paradoxically, forcing Iraq to be more transparent encouraged it to be more belligerent. This in turn fueled U.S. suspicions and bolstered the case for regime change.
States are more likely to adhere to norms if they don’t realize how often norms are broken; if they knew the truth, then they would worry less about international opprobrium. Similarly, obfuscating evidence about foreign states’ activities may contribute to stability. States may conceal intelligence of proliferation, for example, in order to avoid setting off a security dilemma that could lead to a regional arms race. It may seem counterintuitive to extend a blanket of secrecy to potential rivals, but doing so may help buy time for policymakers to craft a more effective and safer response.
In wartime, secrecy helps states control escalation. Great powers engage in covert action against one another — and allow one another to remain covert — rather than run the risk of overt engagements that could escalate unpredictably. Such tacit deals were especially important during the Cold War, as the United States and Soviet Union looked for ways to compete that did not invite Armageddon. But the same logic may be present today. States that fear war but want to impose costs on adversaries may be drawn to a range of covert alternatives below the level of armed conflict.
Should those efforts fail, secret diplomacy can help states end wars by opening subterranean lines of communication. Such peace feelers would likely cause domestic controversy if they were known and thus make it difficult for negotiators to make credible promises. Conducting peace talks in secret keeps the spoilers at bay. During the prolonged Northern Ireland peace process, for example, British intelligence reportedly maintained clandestine lines of communication with armed groups. Public revelations would have likely led to accusations that the government was negotiating with terrorists, thus complicating efforts to end the violence.
The transparency movement has had important effects on professional intelligence. Some are undoubtedly for the good. Opening intelligence to broader public view has greatly expanded the talent pool, creating opportunities for groups that were long excluded from service. This has likely improved the quality of intelligence by bringing in professionals with a wider array of experiences and skills. Transparency may have also prevented the kind of scandals that rocked the intelligence community in the 1960s and 1970s. The intelligence controversies surrounding the Edward Snowden leaks are nothing like the intelligence abuses that occurred during the Vietnam era, before the establishment of congressional intelligence committees. It is possible, and perhaps likely, that the expectation of publicity has caused intelligence community leaders to become more cautious than would otherwise be the case.
But we must weigh the benefits of openness against the value of secrecy. Transparency is the default position in a democracy, and the onus is always on those who would make the case against it. Not all cases are alike, and secrecy may be justified only in particular circumstances. That said, there is no way to ignore the growing body of research on the wisdom of allowing intelligence agencies to operate outside of public view. Although secrecy is not consistent with democratic values, it is sometimes essential for strategy, policy, and diplomacy. Individuals tend to avoid such value trade-offs, pretending them away in favor of what Robert Jervis calls “irrational consistency.” This is especially likely when the values are central to basic political ideals, which probably explains why controversies over intelligence are so intense. Confronting the tradeoff head-on, however, is necessary to balance intelligence needs against oversight requirements.
What does this mean for the annual public threat briefing? Skeptical intelligence officials may not want to participate if they expect that highly public events will descend into threat inflation and grandstanding. They are also probably wary about going in front of cameras again, given their bruising public experiences over the last two decades. Very public disputes over Iraq, Iran, Russia, North Korea, and the Islamic State led to strained relations with policymakers. If they believe that the net result of those fights was not good for anyone, then canceling the public segment of the annual assessment may be a step towards improving the situation.
This, however, would go too far. The worldwide threat assessment gives intelligence leaders a degree of separation from ongoing policy debates because it does not require that they comment on highly charged issues. Instead, the assessment is a pre-planned event that asks them for a sweeping view. This allows officials to trade depth for breadth, and in so doing avoid getting drawn into current policy debates. Congressional overseers have the opportunity to probe specific issues by asking follow-up questions about prepared statements. If the answers are particularly sensitive, both sides can reconvene in a classified session. The result is a useful, albeit imperfect, way of managing the value trade-off described above: The public has the chance to hear the intelligence community’s perspectives about security priorities, in a format that gives intelligence officials the ability to tread carefully around policy fights.
In any case, abandoning the public briefing at this point would probably backfire. Rather than protecting America’s intelligence agencies from politicization, it would rouse suspicions that intelligence leaders were already bending to pressure from the Trump administration. A public decision to avoid the public would invite precisely the kind of scrutiny they seek to avoid.
Joshua Rovner is associate professor in the School of International Service at American University. In 2018 and 2019 he served as scholar-in-residence at the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command. The views here are his alone.