Paul Pillar

Harper, RGIII, and NSA

The advisory panel that the White House appointed to review operations of the National Security Agency amid the leak-stained controversies about those operations appears to be coming up with some sound ideas. According to David Sanger in the New York Times, the panel probably will recommend that the White House get more directly involved in weighing the benefits, costs, and risks of such intelligence collection operations, rather like it does now with covert actions assigned to the CIA. Such involvement is necessary and proper, given that the decisions to be made include essentially political judgments about the relative importance of competing national values and interests.

Sanger also, however, points to a continued tendency to expect the NSA itself to make most of these judgments. The article states that officials who have examined the agency's programs “say they have been surprised at how infrequently the agency has been challenged to weigh the intelligence benefits of its foreign collection operations against the damage that could be done if the programs were exposed.” Think about that statement for a moment. It implies there should be times when this intelligence agency should, on its own, forgo “intelligence benefits” out of fear of the damage that a future leaker might cause.

Such an expectation not only would be another act of surrender to leakers and to whatever is on their personal agendas; it also would be yet another example of the inconsistency over time of the expectations that the American public places on U.S. intelligence agencies. It really wasn't very many years ago that one of the pieces of conventional wisdom about these agencies, repeated endlessly by commentators and commissions, was that they were risk averse and that their unwillingness to take chances in collecting information was a major cause of intelligence failure. Google the combination of “intelligence agencies” and “risk averse” and you get more than 93,000 hits. But now, it seems, these same agencies are expected instead to be more, not less, averse to risk, with respect not only to something like a human agent being endangered but also to the damage that some future Edward Snowden might cause.

At both ends of this swing of this pendulum the public perceptions have been exaggerated. The intelligence agencies always were more willing to accept risk than they were perceived to be several years ago, and they are more conscious of the risks of unauthorized disclosures than they are perceived to be now. In any event, to expect an intelligence agency such as NSA to be the primary weigher of the competing values and objectives that its operations entail is a mistake for two reasons.

One is that these agencies are not well equipped to do such weighing and balancing. They have legions of lawyers to ensure that what they do stays within bounds of the law and the rules, but the considerations to be weighed go well beyond legality and conformity with rules. Those considerations include shifting political moods in America and the reconciliation of competing social values. People in the intelligence agencies are not trained and organized to make judgments about such things. We, the public, ought to be uncomfortable if agencies that are supposed to be restricted to foreign intelligence start getting that close to matters of domestic politics. Moreover, to the extent that officials in these agencies do participate in the weighing, their perspectives naturally will tend to be shaped disproportionately by their being heavily involved in intelligence collection. I would sooner rely on political types in the White House to make a well-rounded judgment as to what the American people would consider a balanced approach.

The other reason is that if the intelligence agencies start worrying more about these broader considerations they are apt to do a less focused, less effective job of carrying out their assigned mission of collecting and analyzing foreign intelligence. Here is where the old criticisms about risk aversion might have some relevance, although the problem is more one of distraction, preoccupation, and back-of-the-mind hesitation than it is about unwillingness to take risks.

People in Washington could make a comparison here with a couple of young stars on the local professional sports teams. One is Bryce Harper, an exciting player with the Nationals baseball team whose go-for-broke style has gotten him injured more than once as he smashed into outfield fences while chasing down batted balls. The other is Robert Griffin III, whose running game is much of what made him appear to be a franchise-rescuing quarterback for the Washington football team but also has contributed to debilitating knee injuries.