If intelligence agencies can’t keep their secrets, they can’t credibly assure us they follow other rules.
The spy world is cloaked in secrecy, but last week’s leak of documents from the Central Intelligence Agency offers a tiny glimpse into what America’s operatives can do. It seems the CIA can hack smart televisions to listen in on conversations, even when the set appears to be off. Smartphones might be less secure than many assumed. The CIA can supposedly penetrate a computer network and leave fingerprints implicating someone else. Man, these guys are good!
Personally, I’m thrilled to hear that the CIA has developed these capabilities. Stealing information from other countries is what spies do. But it’s devastating to see details about America’s intelligence operations leaked to the press. These kinds of intrusions recently have compromised billions of dollars worth of sources and methods, showing the world—including Islamic State and al Qaeda—how Washington knows what it does. They have also caused Americans to ask serious questions about their spy agencies.
The leaks by Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning in 2010, Edward Snowden in 2013, and now at the CIA demonstrate that the intelligence community does not have in place the systems and controls necessary to protect its most sensitive information. That raises the question of whether spy agencies can credibly say that these capabilities are not used against the American people.
The intelligence community can explain what the law says and even cite internal policies that exist to inhibit spying on Americans. But a spy agency that is incapable of keeping its secrets cannot say with confidence that it has effective means of controlling itself. When James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, says America does not spy on its citizens, he doesn’t really know. He hopes that the internal controls and culture will prevent abuse, but he cannot be certain.
After the Manning leak, I’m sure that America’s spymasters thought they had learned their lesson and put in place new, more effective controls. After the Snowden leak, I’m sure they thought those controls had been updated enough to solve the problem. Yet here we are, reading about the CIA’s secrets on the front page of the newspaper.
In 2013 Mr. Clapper testified in an open congressional hearing that the intelligence community did not maintain a cyberdatabase on Americans. That wasn’t true. He misled Congress and the public. The Snowden leak soon showed that the NSA did indeed have a massive database of telephone metadata.
Now the intelligence community has been implicated in the release of information damaging to the incoming president. Telephone conversations involving Mike Flynn, who briefly served as President Trump’s national security adviser, were collected and leaked to the media.
For 10 years I served on the House Intelligence Committee, and the men and women I met from America’s spy agencies were dedicated, hardworking and committed to serving their country. But these episodes indicate that at least a few within that cadre are willing to risk the security of the U.S. for what they must see as some higher purpose. In the process, they betray their oath and tarnish the reputations of their organizations.
This has helped create a second credibility problem for the intelligence community. The public worries that America’s cyberwarfare capabilities may be falling behind. For the past 75 years the U.S. has been blessed with a military that is second to none, with technology to match—from smart bombs and cruise missiles to stealthy submarines and antimissile defenses. America dominates the traditional battlefield.
But the cyber battlefield is very different. There the U.S. faces the usual threats and then some. Russia and China are good in cyberspace, and so are the Iranians and Israelis. Does America retain any discernible edge over North Korea or nonstate actors like ISIS or criminal cartels? If so, how great is it?
These are important questions. Cyberspace may become the great equalizer in modern warfare, allowing lesser countries and organizations to pose the kind of threat they never could on the traditional battlefield. Many experts believe that America is dangerously vulnerable. Could a foreign enemy cripple the financial system, shut down part of the electrical grid, or even cause a meltdown at a nuclear power plant?
Just as Americans deserve to know their government is not spying on them, they need assurance that the U.S. is capable of winning wars in cyberspace and protecting the country’s critical infrastructure. On both points, the intelligence community faces a credibility gap.
That is the challenge for the new director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, and the CIA director, Mike Pompeo. In addition to keeping the nation secure, they need to restore trust between America’s spies and its citizens. A good first step would be teaching intelligence agencies to keep their own secrets—so that Americans must once again merely imagine what their spies can do.
Mr. Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican, was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, 2004-07.
Tags: Can Americans Trust Their Spies?, Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, CIA’s secrets, cyber, cyberdatabase, cyberspace, Dan Coats, hacking, Hoekstra, House Intelligence Committee, intelligence community, Mike Pompeo, national intelligence, protecting the country’s critical infrastructure, Snowden, U.S., U.S. intelligence