US intelligence agencies put on an uncommon public face

By Arthur I. Cyr

“Success cannot be advertised; failure cannot be explained. In the work of intelligence, heroes are undecorated and unsung, often even among their own fraternity.” That was how President Dwight D. Eisenhower summed up the challenge, the frustration and the duty of intelligence professionals. He was speaking on Nov. 3, 1959 at the ceremony to lay the cornerstone of the new Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters in Langley Virginia. In that era, there was no significant debate about the need for intelligence professionals to operate in secret. Shortly after New Year’s, the heads of the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency (NSA) and James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, launched a public relations offensive to argue Russia, including President Vladimir Putin, hacked into email from the Clinton presidential campaign. With great fanfare, a meeting was held with President-elect Donald Trump to present evidence behind the conclusions. With equal hype, Clapper and friends testified before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.

Welcome to the latest reality TV show. Why did this happen?

Certainly not primarily because of focus on United States national security. If the security of the nation were paramount, the agency heads should have said as little as possible publicly beyond confirming Russian involvement.

In future, the top spooks could help political campaigns to grow up and be discreet. Clinton emails are filled with arrogance, entitlement, and gossip. Did the leaks affect the 2016 presidential election? Perhaps, but if so that is because of the contents of the emails. Shrewd politicians avoid putting potentially damaging statements in writing. The most plausible reason why the officials went public with lights, cameras and media melodrama has to do with self-protection in the political warfare of Washington. Politicians want to score points with anxious voters, and Putin is one scary bear. Agency directors are defending their turf. James Clapper’s post of Director of National Intelligence was created in 2004 to coordinate intelligence agencies across the board. In 2013, he denied before Congress that our agencies collect data on Americans. The next year, Wikileaks released information from Edward Snowden showing data was collected.