National security is the federal government’s most basic responsibility, laid out in the first sentence of our Constitution’s preamble: “provide for the common defense.” But what was once the exclusive domain of the public sector now depends upon a range of actors, individuals, corporations and entities who —unlike the government — are not beholden to the public interest. Their voices are noisy, voluminous and often ill-informed. The public knows little about how our government protects us, and even less about the role of the intelligence community in national security. This offers them no meaningful presence in the democratic discourse, and limited recognition of the intelligence community’s most precious commodity: its objectivity.
From its beginning, the intelligence community (IC) was modeled on and grounded in secrecy. It was forced to mature rapidly as a mechanism to deal with the Soviet Union and quickly evolved into a closed system that required secret collection methods to obtain information on our enemies. But in its persisting eagerness to ensure that information does not slip into the wrong hands, the IC has forgotten that the hand that feeds it belongs to the American public. They are the greatest consumer of the public good that is national security. Democracy and democratically accountable institutions, such as the intelligence community’s 19 members, require the public to have knowledge, not just faith.
Intelligence agencies have made cursory attempts at transparency, but these efforts have been reactive, not proactive — always in response to an accusation of wrongdoing. They are meant to mollify and slake the public’s curiosity, rather than to engage and assimilate. The IC’s unwillingness to even consider a comprehensive strategy for public engagement has put it back on its heels, forced to defend its position to a skeptical public without offering evidence and without the benefit of an established brand and a proven track record.
Increasingly, choosing what to pay attention to also means choosing what to believe. As our brains struggle with information overload, we try to make sense of competing data streams. But we’re overwhelmed, so we take shortcuts; we trust information that fits into our preexisting worldview. This is especially troubling for national security because most of what the public hears and believes about national intelligence comes from information sources outside the intelligence community. The IC’s voice hasn’t gotten lost in the noise — it was never there in the first place.
Data on the IC are restricted for nearly all of the American public, which must then turn to available sources of information to make sense out of the basic need that is national security. Information from journalists, Congress, political elites and Hollywood forms too much of the public’s perception. These entities have their own motivated reasoning for communicating certain information in a particular way, which is not always faithful to fact. Experts may be silenced, and these interpreters speak in fragments and half-truths. Because the IC cannot talk about its wins, its losses appear to be mounting.
As others’ voices rise to add to the global cacophony, those voices in the IC must embrace their own conversations and ask hard questions that threaten the status quo — questions about building a strategy to engage the public, transparency efforts, the blended commitment to security, a credible voice, and true value to the common defense.
If these conversations do not take place — earnestly, expansively and soon — the growing privatization of the intelligence function becomes a very real risk. With the seeds already sown, private intelligence companies will compete for policymakers’ attention. These shadow capabilities in the private sector will match the government’s in timeliness, speed and even accuracy. As trust in their methods and findings grows, the IC will be pushed aside slowly in favor of faster, more complementary assessments — despite disquieting questions regarding politicization and profit.
Unless the intelligence community finds its voice within this rising cacophony, its silence will facilitate its demise — and along with it, the safety and security of the nation it is sworn to protect and defend.
Deb Pfaff, Ph.D., is an associate professor of research with the Ann Caracristi Institute for Intelligence Research at National Intelligence University (NIU). She has 20 years of government service, 17 with the IC. Prior to the NIU, she served in the analyst career field at the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Bo Miller, Ph.D., is a professor of transnational issues at the National Intelligence University. His more than 50 years in intelligence have spanned Air Force counterintelligence, Department of State all-source intelligence analysis, research and teaching.
The opinions expressed here are the authors’ and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. government.