Imagine the civil-military divide -- but much, much bigger.
BY JOHN MCLAUGHLIN | JUNE 17, 2013
"What's really going on here?" That's the question I typically ask students to kick-start a discussion about some aspect of American intelligence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where I teach a graduate course on the subject.
This same question might fairly be asked about the controversy dominating the news since the leak that revealed the intelligence community's highly classified electronic surveillance program. Why are we so fascinated with this case? Why are some Americans outraged at the government while others are outraged at the leaker? Why do so many of us have such firm and passionate views about all of this?
At one level, the answer is simple: Intelligence is a sexy subject, particularly in the post-9/11 era. And the surveillance program was a secret, so who wouldn't be interested? But this controversy taps into deeper cultural strains that go to the very heart of the intelligence community's role in America, and perhaps our maturation as a nation. The bottom line is that intelligence, as a profession, still does not sit comfortably in our polity. There are a number of reasons for this.
First, the essential qualities of good intelligence inevitably clash with the underlying values of an open, pluralistic, and free society such as ours. The effectiveness of our democracy depends on an informed citizenry; effective intelligence depends on withholding and protecting information deemed sensitive. As citizens, Americans cherish their privacy; intelligence officers, subject to frequent background checks, polygraphs, and intrusive financial disclosure, are accustomed to giving it up. The functioning of our system revolves around the rule of law; the functioning of intelligence, while based in American public law, relies on the willingness of its officers to "get chalk on their cleats" to quote former CIA Director Michael Hayden -- and to actually break the laws of other countries by secretly recruiting foreign nationals as agents. So as the curtain is pulled back on the NSA's surveillance program, many of us instinctively recoil -- and even some supporters wince a little. Meanwhile, prurient interest in the details skyrockets.