Should the United States engage in secret, covert or clandestine activity if the American public cannot be convinced of the necessity and wisdom of such activities should they be leaked or disclosed?
To intelligence professionals, that’s a bizarre question. The answer is that the public’s opinion shouldn’t matter, because espionage, clandestine intercepts of intelligence and covert acts carried out by the United States and other governments are often, by their nature, dirty and mostly illegal operations where they are carried out.
The prime reason for secrecy is that you don’t want the targets to know what you are doing. But often in democracies, another reason is that you don’t want your citizens to know what their government is doing on their behalf to keep them secure, as long as it’s within their country’s law.
“Accountability and secrecy” were two watchwords a former senior intelligence official said guided operations during his 40 year career, not whether the public would approve of everything he was doing.
However, that’s not what President Barack Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies said last week after its study of intelligence-gathering in the wake of disclosures generated by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s leaking of tens of thousands of previously secret NSA documents.
The president’s five-member panel called for reinstituting what it called the “Front-Page Rule,” which it described as an “informal precept, long employed by the leaders of U.S. administration.” It said such activities should not be undertaken if the public couldn’t support them if exposed.
In some 40 years of covering intelligence, I have never heard of such a rule, nor have several former senior intelligence officials with whom I have talked.
The closest we recalled is the old rule of “plausible deniability,” which came out of the CIA in the 1950s, after then-President Dwight Eisenhower had to backtrack after publicly denying knowledge of the intelligence purpose of U-2 flights over Russia after the shootdown of one. Plausible deniability, in CIA rhetoric, was an approach that allowed a president to deny knowledge of an intelligence operation that went bad by saying he knew nothing about it, leaving those carrying out the activity to take the blame for failure or exposure.