“If I can’t use this information, then what good is it to have it?! Why even collect it in the first place?!” It’s a cry of frustration, an angry rhetorical exclamation I heard many times during my 30-year career as an operations officer at the CIA. Usually it comes from ambassadors or senior members of the national security apparatus in Washington, and occasionally even from analysts in the intelligence community who have been provided with a truly stunning piece of information acquired clandestinely from human or technical sources. The sense of frustration among these consumers of intelligence is heightened when the topic is critical and timely, and when both the government and the American public are clamoring for answers to difficult questions. This is precisely where we as a nation find ourselves when discussing the claim by the U.S. intelligence community that Russian hackers attempted to influence the U.S. presidential elections. The White House has ordered a report on what the hackers did, and to what extent they were trying to help Donald Trump, before Trump is sworn in as president Jan. 20. News reports say officials at the FBI and the CIA have agreed that hackers targeted the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, to boost Trump. President Obama suggested this month that Russian President Vladimir Putin knew about the hacks. But proving that case to the public at large will get complicated. The discussion about the cyber intrusions and what U.S. intelligence agencies know about them goes directly to some of the most sensitive questions in the business: the best way to protect sources and methods, and how to use clandestinely acquired information to resolve a politically charged issue. Secrets intelligence agencies want to keep compete with an understandable desire to reveal them. Facts may help resolve the matter, but in revealing the facts, the government may also reveal how we got them. It is truly not an overstatement to say that technical capabilities we have spent years and millions to develop could be rendered useless in one news cycle if disclosure is not handled correctly. Worse — and I do not exaggerate — if it were human sources that provided the information, they could lose their lives.
This is the central tension between clandestine intelligence collection and an open society, the conundrum facing intelligence officials and politicians alike. Normally in a democracy, ideas such as transparency, direct attribution, fact-checking, research and the like are viewed as virtues. In fact, we often gauge how democratic a society is by such measures: How much of the internal workings of a government can we see? Are journalists and researchers hindered by a government when doing their work? The problem with clandestine intelligence is that while all of those virtues are alive and well in the intelligence community — really, they are — they exist inside a closed system. Operations officers routinely keep the identity of sensitive sources from analysts (with exceptions, such as in some counterterrorism work). Professional methodologies ensure that sources are validated, and their information is vetted: Multiple sources providing information on the same topic are compared and analyzed; clandestinely acquired information is layered onto known facts to test for reliability; human intelligence is compared to intelligence acquired from other intelligence disciplines such as signals intelligence or overhead. For the most part, that system works. Analysts and collectors work together closely on this, and it is in both their interests to ensure fabrication does not occur. There are oversight committees in the House and Senate that monitor clandestine collection and intelligence analysis — but they are select committees, whose members commit to keeping the secrets shared with them to themselves. And for the most part, they do.
There are systems in place, in other words, to ensure good intelligence is shared securely within the government. There are not many systems in place that are designed to read the public in.