Why we need to spy
When Congress passed the National Security Act of 1947, establishing the Central Intelligence Agency, it was the first time the United States had ever had a peacetime intelligence organization.
The concept of a secret U.S. intelligence organization had been widely and publicly discussed between the end of World War II and l947. Those who opposed the idea pointed out the dichotomy of establishing such an organization in a liberal democracy. Wouldn’t its existence go against the basic tenets of democracy? It was a serious, prolonged discussion that was finally resolved in favor of the creation of the CIA. The rise of the USSR and its acquisitive policies in Europe played a major role in forming a consensus that America would need the services of such an organization in the coming years.
So the CIA was created to stand with existing military intelligence organizations and, in 1949, with the National Security Agency, as the United States’ primary espionage agencies. This effort came to exist primarily because of the proclivity of other nations to guard their secrets, particularly when those secrets represented any potential threat to the U.S. and its citizens.
All of this discussion was open and public in nature. None of it was classified. Anyone who wished to become informed on the subject could find ample original source information in the public media. The result was that anyone who chose to know could find out in short order that the United States was setting up a post-war intelligence structure to support foreign and military policymakers in the coming Cold War.
Now, suddenly, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have jolted us, as an amnesiac nation, into reopening the same conversation, proving, if nothing else, that America has no institutional memory.
If you believe that serious threats to the American nation ended with the demise of the Soviet Union and that no other such threats exist against the United States today, then probably you don’t see any objective need for this country to maintain an intelligence-gathering structure.
If, on the other hand, you are concerned with America’s ability to protect herself against non-state terrorism, nuclear proliferation and nations that might somehow wish to harm us, then perhaps you can see some advantage in our having an efficient, functioning intelligence collection system.
The sole purpose of such a system is to provide policymakers with accurate information on the capabilities and intentions of any group that might wish to harm us. During the Cold War we benefitted from the fact that we knew pretty well precisely who and where those hostile groups were.
Today’s world is far more complicated and confusing. We are faced with a fragmented terrorist enemy that comes at us not only from abroad, but from within our own country. Unlike an enemy directed by the Soviet Union, today’s enemies are self-directed individuals and groups, often with no ties to any central organization. In intelligence terms, this deprives us of the option of penetrating the main organization to learn what the affiliates are planning to do.
Then, strictly in support of foreign policy, we are dealing with regions like the Middle East where political stability is a thing of the past and where the main result of the Arab Spring has been chaos, which has made policy decisions extraordinarily complicated and accurate intelligence mandatory. Further, the nuclear activities of countries like Iran and North Korea mandate intelligence input. And because none of these countries and non-state actors is going to tell us what they are up to, covert intelligence collection is the only answer.
Intelligence collection was never designed to go unmonitored in America. The 1947 act and subsequent legislation creating the intelligence community have had built into them appropriate controls that mandate legislative and judicial monitoring. In fact, today all we have are allegations that wrongdoing is possible, not that it is actually happening. That’s akin to saying that the U.S. military shouldn’t have guns because they might one day aim them at their fellow Americans.
What that implies is that those Americans who are most agitated by information coming from today’s leakers and are most negative on intelligence collection are those who believe that those who work in the intelligence community or monitor their work are not to be trusted.
There are two keys here. First, the overwhelming majority of employees in the intelligence community are honorable, patriotic, well-intentioned people. When you combine their sense of right and wrong with solid, appropriate oversight, you minimize whatever problems might arise.
Second, without intelligence, we are blind in an increasingly hostile and dangerous world.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in eastern and western Europe and the Middle East, as chief of the counterterrorism staff and as executive assistant in the director’s office. He lives in Williston.