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Essay: Intelligence Agencies & The Value Of Silence

The outside of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Headquarters in Washington D.C.

There are a number of jokes about intelligence work, but the punchline is always some variation of “but if I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

Lake Effect foreign policy contributor Art Cyr says all joking aside, secrecy and discretion are crucial components of this work:

Congressman John Ratcliffe (R-TX) has been withdrawn as White House nominee to be Director of National Intelligence, and that is in the nation’s interest. His main qualification was aggressively badgering Special Counsel Robert Mueller on the media stage, which is no serious qualification at all.

Intelligence work demands discretion along with skill. Silence is essential, can be golden, and clearly is especially hard to find in today’s tweet-happy Washington D.C.

Regarding media visibility, after the 2016 elections the heads of the CIA, FBI, NSA (National Security Agency) and the Director of National Intelligence launched a public relations offensive highlighting how 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 U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.

There is no denying that Russian hackers, and no doubt human agents as well, meddled in the 2016 elections. How much this affected the results is extremely uncertain. The fact that they interfered is undeniable. President Barack Obama revealed these developments in October 2016, just before voting took place.

Why did the Intel officials go public with lights, cameras and melodrama? Because they wanted to protect themselves in the contemporary political warfare of Washington. Politicians want to score points with voters, and Putin remains one scary bear, but protecting our nation involves secrecy. These bureaucrats were shielding themselves.

The national media soap opera related to intelligence continues. Controversy and associated political consternation swirled for a time around President Trump’s removal of the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan, who has become a harsh public critic of the administration. Again, in earlier periods, protecting national security dictated maintaining disciplined silence, a durable truth worth remembering.

Traditionally, intelligence work has involved balancing electronic and human surveillance. Today our government deemphasizes 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.

Former Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA), a successful tech entrepreneur, was insightful in office analyzing intelligence agencies. In 2016, he publicly opposed FBI legal efforts to try to force Apple to decrypt the iPhone.

Issa and General 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 – with outside help.

In November 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower spoke at the cornerstone ceremony of the new CIA headquarters in Langley Virginia. 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 automatic – not to be confused with automated - understanding of this. In evaluating public office candidates, consider the degree to which they express maturity and selflessness – rather than political expediency – in addressing questions of national security. That includes current presidential candidates.

When you find such candidates, who are serious about defense and national security, support them as fully as possible. Look for signs of selflessness, along with disciplined attention to policy. Political and related government experience is desirable, as long as that is combined with other qualities.

Serving our nation is an honor.

Lake Effect contributor Art Cyr is a professor of political economy and world business and directs the Clausen Center for World Business at Carthage College in Kenosha.

Arthur I. Cyr is Director of the Clausen Center for World Business and Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha. Previously he was President of the Chicago World Trade Center, the Vice President of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, a faculty member and executive at UCLA, and an executive at the Ford Foundation. His publications include the book After the Cold War - American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia (Macmillan and NYU Press).