Obama’s Spies Got Their Priorities All Wrong

We’re right to want politicians to demand transparency from the intelligence community. What we don’t want is spies thinking that’s their number one job.


What’s job number one for the nation’s intelligence community? Is it bolstering our numbers of human spies and informants? Cracking into the cyber domains of our foes? Developing “real time” evaluations of threats as they emerge?

All of these functions are critical to our nation’s security. Yet some in Washington seem to think that the biggest problem facing the U.S. intelligence community (IC) is that it keeps too much of what it does under wraps. For them, “transparency” is job number one. Their motto for the IC: “If you do something, say something.”

That’s an overstatement, of course. But the Obama administration seems to be trending that way. Last Tuesday the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) unveiled a formal plan for implementing its Principles of Intelligence Transparency for the Intelligence Community. While the plan recognizes that demands on the IC have increased even as budgets declined, it argues that a greater share of scarce intelligence resources must be devoted to enhanced transparency. This speaks volumes about the administration’s priorities.

Long on bureaucratic jargon, the 13-page document calls for “adapting the IC culture to one of enhanced transparency.” This, it informs, can be achieved by providing “appropriate staffing and training to support transparency initiatives.” As an action plan, it is unclear. And it gets muddier.

The press release announcing the plan quotes ODNI Civil Liberties Protection Officer Alexander W. Joel as saying, “Our first priority is to make more information available about our governance framework.” Really? What on God’s green earth does that even mean? I don’t know, and I wound up my career as the acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. And who outside the Beltway really cares about the IC’s “governance framework” anyway?

It’s ironic that a “transparency implementation plan” is swaddled in such opaque bureaucratic language. But the real danger of the transparency drive is that it might produce effects entirely opposite to what’s intended.

The plan argues that increased transparency is essential to build public support for the robust intelligence capabilities needed in an increasingly dangerous world. But leaders of virtually all the major intelligence agencies—NSA, CIA, FBI, DIA, etc.—including the Director of National Intelligence himself, have been making the case for enhanced intelligence capabilities for years. And, yes, those very public discussions have typically addressed the competing needs for both secrecy and transparency in an open society.

The plan implies that these public conversations have not occurred and couldn’t possibly continue without implementing a bureaucratic process to make sure it does. But endless palaver over transparency is unlikely to improve our intelligence capabilities. Those who see secrecy in intelligence as antithetical to an open society will never be satisfied with what the IC releases, and no plan produced by a Director of National Intelligence to “implement transparency” will ever slake their insatiable demands.

The final irony arising from this plan is its evocation of President Obama’s 2009 memorandum on transparency and open government. Is that really the baseline we want to use for transparency? Since that memo was issued, the administration has become notorious for its lack of transparency.

In the face of incredibly big challenges for our nation, the administration’s new intelligence transparency implementation plan gets us precisely nowhere. It won’t improve our ability to gather intelligence, analyze it properly or act on it in a timely fashion. No terrorist planning to attack us has anything to fear from this plan.

The transparency document and its release are nothing more than an exercise in political correctness. Doubtless it will fuel expectations for significantly more declassification. It will also erode further the discipline of secrecy within the IC, as it both provides an alibi for being lax with sensitive information as it foments confusion over what must be kept secret.

The best advocates for improving our nation’s intelligence capabilities are usually those who come from outside the intelligence community: people like the president, the presidential candidates in both parties, and current and former leaders of Congress. None of those voices demand a transparency plan, and we’d be well advised to listen to them, not a politicized intelligence bureaucracy.

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David R. Shedd is a former acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a visiting distinguished fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.