U.S. News


The American Intelligence Community Facade

Although he lived about 2,500 years ago, the wisdom of the great sage Confucius continues to provide humanity with useful counsel. The fact that he remains relatively obscure in the West is unfortunate; while Master Kong, as he is also known, has massively influenced Chinese culture from his lifetime onward, even most educated Americans know little or nothing about his thinking. One concept that would be particularly useful to Americans at the current moment is the “rectification of names” — the calling of things by their proper name, particularly relationships (such as governor and governed), so as to properly understand duties. This rigor, in turn, ultimately undergirds good governance and social harmony.

Policies based on right understanding, embedded within a political culture that values truth, have a strong self-defense mechanism against many forms of corruption. Appealing lies can be debunked before they become policy, and their peddlers — whether cynically ambitious or just foolish —can be removed from positions of responsibility.

The U.S. government desperately requires a rectification of names in many areas, but one of the most important is in relation to its “intelligence community.”

Although much of the intelligence budget is hidden from the public, it appears that in most years the United States breaks its own previous year’s record, spending more, in absolute terms, than any country in the history of the world.

This “community” is made up of 17 agencies with mutual antipathies, overlapping responsibilities and only the thinnest patina of oversight. The degree to which these agencies are independent of other government actors has become increasingly obvious in recent days, as the investigation of Russian intelligence activities related to the 2016 election has become a chaotic, multisided investigation in which the activities of the FBI and other agencies are coming under increasing scrutiny.

A more honest name for the “intelligence community” would be “the intelligence organs of the state security apparatus,” or the “state intelligence organs,” for short. While most Americans would find this formulation — with its terminology reminiscent of authoritarian and totalitarian governments — unappetizing, that is its great virtue: it tells the truth, bluntly.

The reality is that these agencies are only minimally controlled by the elected government. The voters have such indirect and feeble information about these agencies’ activities as to have near-zero meaningful influence over them. Again, the current imbroglio is instructive. Both the White House and Congress exercise little direct control over the state intelligence organs, while the judiciary is largely irrelevant to them on a day-to-day basis — except for the FISA court, which, as best as can be determined from the little publicly available information, displays a cheerful willingness to grant virtually any request made of it (though here are arguments that suggest their agreeableness is not quite what it seems).

The state intelligence organs, however, are anything but powerless over either the public or other agencies of government. They possess information, and some of them — the NSA, in particular — have such a trove of private data that they can destroy the reputation of almost any citizen, including members of the Supreme Court and Congress, billionaire industrialists, and the other powerful persons who hypothetically might be able to counterbalance them. Of course, it is illegal to leak intelligence information, but this nonetheless occurs all the time, and we may be at a point where factions have begun to actively manipulate the U.S. political process.

It also should be noted that an unknown — but large — number of personnel have access to highly private information on huge numbers of their fellow citizens. However, given the secrecy surrounding U.S. intelligence capabilities and practices, it is difficult to assess how easily private information might be misused for political advantage by agencies or elements within them.

The protection of democracy requires that the state intelligence organs be brought to heel. This should not be a partisan issue — Democrats may enjoy egging on the “Deep State” against Trump today, but precedents are being set, and future presidents stand vulnerable not just to agencies themselves, but factions (and even individuals) within those agencies. Employees of these agencies appear increasingly aware of their power: they are coming to realize that norms constraining their behavior can be ignored, and felonies committed, with apparent impunity.

Eventually, they even may begin to accomplish what their counterparts in Russia did — not only acting independently, but progressively “capturing” and controlling other agencies of government. This need not require a coup in any traditional sense — many factions and individuals armed with information, compromising or otherwise, could capture the state slowly without any single organized conspiracy. One might think of this as a “swarm” that would progressively degrade democracy, leaving the formal shell (elections) intact, but destroying its essence.

The only way to mitigate this danger is to drag these agencies into the light, massively increasing oversight and backing this with vigorous prosecution of any employee who knowingly breaks the law, especially regarding matters of citizen privacy and/or leaking classified data for political objectives.

An institutional structure is needed to enforce this, and the hopelessly politicized Department of Justice is unfit for the task. What is needed is an entity that is entirely independent, strictly nonpartisan, and empowered to investigative and criminally prosecute malfeasance of all varieties. To protect its integrity, the activities of the body should be as open to public and congressional scrutiny as practicality allows. It also should be relatively non-hierarchical, as hierarchical organizations tend both to be prone to corruption and effective at hiding their activities.

Rather, the new agency could, for example, be governed by a board of 25 “inspectors general” drawn from outside the federal government for long, but non-renewable, terms, each leading an independent team, but coordinating their activities via board meetings whose edited minutes are released after a reasonable time.

In the spirit of calling things by their appropriate name, perhaps it could be called the “Democracy and Privacy Defense Agency.”