Intelligence agencies and the value of silence
“Selflessness,” said President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Ike was replying to a question from Vice President Richard Nixon, who had asked him what he considered most important in selecting people to work with him, whether in war or peace, or the twilight ambiguous struggle known as the Cold War.
Nixon in his memoirs writes that the president was silent for an extraordinarily long time before answering. The quiet continued for so long that the vice president wondered if the boss had forgotten the question.
Not a chance.
Silence is essential to serious reflection and analysis, can be golden, and clearly is hard to find in today’s tweet-happy Washington. Selflessness is vital to serious service, especially but not exclusively in the public sector. Arguably, this is particularly true in intelligence agencies, where risks can be mortal and stakes very high — including national survival.
Shortly after the 2016 election, the heads of the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence launched a public relations offensive to argue Russia, including President Vladimir Putin, meddled in the 2016 elections, including hacking Clinton campaign email. With great fanfare, they met with President-elect Donald Trump to present evidence behind the conclusions. With equal hype, the top spooks testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The most plausible reason why the officials went public with lights, cameras and media melodrama has to do with self-protection in the contemporary political warfare of Washington. Politicians want to score points with anxious voters, and Putin remains one scary bear. Agency directors were defending their turf and themselves.
The U.S. government created the post of director of national intelligence in 2004 to coordinate intelligence agencies across the board. In 2013, Director James Clapper denied before Congress that our agencies collect data on Americans. The next year, WikiLeaks released information from NSA contractor Edward Snowden showing data were collected.
Domestic surveillance is hardly new. In 1967, amid civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests, Army Gen. William P. Yarborough, assistant chief of staff for intelligence, sent an unprecedented request to the NSA to collect intelligence on the rapidly escalating domestic unrest. This sparked extensive domestic surveillance involving the Army and CIA as well as the NSA. In the following decade, the illegal program was exposed by Congress and stopped.
The national media soap opera related to intelligence continues. Current controversy and consternation swirls around Trump’s removal of the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan, who has become a constant harsh public critic. In earlier periods, intelligence work involved maintaining a disciplined silence, a rule worth remembering.
Traditionally, intelligence work has involved balancing electronic and human surveillance. Today our government de-emphasizes human agents. In World War II and the Cold War, that dimension was vital. It still is, as our British partners well understand. Current emphasis on public relations by officials is the other side of reliance on relatively automated electronic tools.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a successful tech entrepreneur, is insightful criticizing current inertia. In 2016, he publicly opposed FBI legal efforts to try to force Apple to decrypt the iPhone.
Issa and retired Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of both the CIA and the NSA, argued Apple should not be required to comply. Government professionals should handle such hard tasks, as eventually they did.
Issa is retiring from Congress next year. Candidates vying for the seat include Democrat Doug Applegate, a retired Marine Corps officer, who narrowly lost to Issa in 2016. Consider seriously with fairness military veteran candidates; beware retired intelligence officials seeking public celebrity.
On Nov. 3, 1959, Eisenhower spoke at a special ceremony to lay the cornerstone of the new CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. He emphasized that in this field “Success cannot be advertised; failure cannot be explained. In the work of intelligence, heroes are undecorated and unsung, often even among their own fraternity.”
In that era, there was no significant debate about the need for intelligence pros to operate in secret. In evaluating candidates for Congress this November, consider the degree to which they express maturity and selflessness — rather than political expediency — in addressing questions of national security.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”