Another aspect of American life laid bare by the current controversy is the wide gulf between intelligence professionals and those who ask why a leak like this does damage. To an experienced intelligence officer, it’s the ultimate “duh” question — a bit like asking if a flashlight might be helpful on a dark night. Sure, adversaries assume we do some of this, but they don’t know how we do it or how effective we are. The typical intelligence officer asks: Why should we give any detail or confirmation to people trying to kill us when they volunteer nothing and rely on secrecy as their most effective asymmetric tool against our superior power? In the intelligence game, we succeed as much by fostering ambiguity and uncertainty as by our technical ingenuity.
This gulf may just be symptomatic of that old Washington saying that “where you stand depends on where you sit.” For the average citizen, the thought bubble when hearing about an intelligence leak may be “Isn’t that fascinating . . . I’ve always wondered about that.” For the average intelligence officer, often grappling with an adversary employing deception and tight security, the thought bubble is, “How hard do you want my job to be?”
So the controversy over surveillance reveals much about us as a nation and about the cultural divide between the intelligence profession and those with a different focus. Where does it go from here? A prediction: The surveillance program will be endlessly and publicly debated, investigated, eviscerated and digested. In the end, we will all get comfortable with some not-so-very different version of it, perhaps buttressed by a more consensus-based legal foundation. In the process, we will have created a public guidebook to how we do this type of intelligence, and our citizens will be much more educated and sophisticated about our intelligence methods.
But so will those who want to know all of this even more desperately than we do. There is no having it both ways.
McLaughlin is practitioner-in-residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004.