Porter Goss writes that “We can’t have a secret intelligence service if we keep giving away all the secrets” and it’s time for the country to start putting “Security Before Politics” and stop holding people accountable for their illegal activities.
Goss is clearly right that there’s a tension between America’s desire for a secret intelligence service and America’s desire to know what its intelligence services are doing with our money allegedly to secure our national interests. But at the same time, this is clearly a spectrum rather than a choice. There can be more and less secrecy, not “secrecy” or “no secrecy.” And it’s worth questioning Goss’ view that there’s a straightforward trade-off between disclosure and security. Afte rall, the goal of an intelligence service is not to have a lot of secrecy but to have a lot of efficacy. Secrecy can improve efficacy. But secrecy can also reduce efficacy. If you have no idea what your intelligence services are doing, and if politicians know they can engage in illegal activities by working through the cloak of secrecy that hangs over intelligence operations, then you have a recipe for law-breaking, incompetence, and corruption, not awesome intelligence success.
Meanwhile, I don’t think one should overstate the role of effective covert intelligence operations in securing a nation. The KGB was, by all accounts, a very high-performing intelligence agency that had a great deal of ability to keep things secret. But the Soviet Union was not a high-performing country. Its economic system couldn’t deliver sustained prosperity, its political system was repressive and unstable, and its international relations approach was incapable of achieving meaning cooperative relationships with countries it didn’t coercively dominate. The long-term viability of the United States depends much more on our ability to sustain liberal institutions than on our ability to carve-out effective exceptions to the basic principles of transparency, democracy, and accountability.