Government officials who work with highly classified materials are subject to serious punishment if, by intention or negligence, they reveal the information they have acquired in the course of their work, especially if and when it compromises the sensitive sources and methods used to acquire it. I find myself thinking about the implications of this fact every time I read a news report dealing with U.S. government agencies entrusted with for developing such information for use by government decision makers responsible for national security affairs.
The U.S. Constitution provides certain protections from government abuses of persons and their property, which apply to all level of government subject to its jurisdiction. Intelligence activities, such as wiretapping and the surveillance of private personal activities, may run contrary to these provisions. When clearly delimited, they can be justified when necessary to secure the Constitution and people of the United States from threats to their existence. By law, our national security agencies are subject to certain operational restrictions, intended to make it more difficult to pursue these activities for personal and partisan advantage.
Americans ought to be concerned with making sure that these safeguards are effectively maintained and respected. This is an imperative of liberty. However, they also have a vital interest in making sure that our national security agencies are, without exception, capable of meeting their operational requirements. This is imperative for survival in a world where threats abound. Maintaining the right balance between these imperatives isn’t easy, but it is always necessary.
If any of our intelligence agencies target American citizens, or their elected representatives in government, simply to intimidate and/or secure power over them, this constitutes a direct attack on the body politic. It is a political offence “which may with peculiar propriety be denominated political” because it involves injury “done immediately to the society itself.” (Federalist #65) On the other hand, the default of effective intelligence may produce the destruction of the society itself, by means of violence or subversion, orchestrated by hostile foreign or domestic forces.
Obviously, when balancing such self-evidently vital imperatives, thinking skewed by factional motives, ideological fanaticism, or self-serving ambition ought to be strictly avoided or severely constrained. The laws that discipline officials who handle sensitive intelligence aim to discourage such thinking. So do laws that prevent our intelligence agencies from targeting people for purposes of influencing actions, decisions and outcomes over which such agencies have no Constitutionally lawful authority.
Right now, the CIA and the FBI stand accused of targeting people in just this way, up to and including Donald Trump and people around him. News stories abound that purport to be based on abusive surveillance activities. However, third-party government officials (e.g., the Russian Ambassador to the United States, or officials of the Russian or Ukrainian governments) are also involved. In the interest of clear and balanced analysis, therefore, a question has to be raised and answered: Were Donald Trump and his associates deliberately targeted for surveillance, or did their activities come under surveillance because they entered into the ambit of the people who were being targeted for good reason?
I dare not answer this question. This is partly because I am not privy to any information required to do so. But what of those who are? Given the provisions of U.S. law discussed above, and my own experience in government, I have to consider the fact that government officials who do have the requisite knowledge may be in no position publicly to explain themselves, because doing so would directly or indirectly reveal the precise sources and methods used to acquire it. So, at times when such officials are publicly excoriated for targeting people inappropriately, they may be constrained from openly using what they know to answer their critics.
If, in the course of their work, our intelligence people acquire alarming information about people directly or indirectly involved in our elections, or in politically charged governmental or other public activities, are they obliged simply to ignore that information? This would allow infiltration and subversion of our government and politics, even at the highest levels, despite the fact that the officials responsible for apprehending such dangers had the information required to forestall such consequences.
Though it seems entirely forgotten in the mad frenzy of factional passion being fomented, on all sides, by the current generation of political leadership in the United States, our national security must have an institutional basis kept free of such passion. This allow information to be gathered and used in the best interests of preserving our Constitution, and assuring our survival as a free (i.e., independent and self-governing) people. But, as Hamilton wrote of the forces required to provide for our common defense:
…confidence must be placed somewhere; …the necessity of doing it, is implied in the very act of delegating power, …it is better to hazard the abuse of that confidence than to embarrass the government and endanger the public safety.
In light of this imperative, every aspect of the factional free-for-all presently being fomented around our national security agencies embarrasses our government and endangers our public safety. Everyone who sincerely cares about the safety and integrity of our Constitutional self-government ought to cease making any further contribution to this damaging spectacle. It can only serve the purposes of forces everywhere who seek to damage and destroy us.
Have we lost confidence in our intelligence apparatus? Are we justified in doing so? Or are they now being used by all factions as a whipping boy, to intensify suspicion and turn the whirlwind of factional battle into a hurricane, contributing to the ruination of our self-government? Hamilton made the remark quoted above with particular reference to “impolitic restrictions on the legislative authority.” This context reminds us of the fact that the ultimate responsibility for assuring the structural integrity and provisioning of our government rests with the legislative branch.
The crisis of our self-confidence with respect to our country’s intelligence gathering activities is not limited to the episodes now being touted for factional purposes. Apparently, massive releases of sensitive intelligence information have occurred. Our most visible and important intelligence agencies are being accused of self-serving abuses of power. The apparatus of staff support for Congressional oversight of our intelligence and national security activities has apparently been compromised.
In the age of terrorism, whatever its source or excuse, reliable intelligence, gathered and used with strict and professional discipline, is the key to our survival. Reaching out to every trustworthy and patriotic source of experience, prudential wisdom and principled understanding we have as a people, our leaders in Congress need to make it their priority to think through and implement, by law, the institutional reforms deemed necessary and sufficient to restore confidence in the discipline, professionalism and Constitutional respectability of every aspect of our intelligence operations. They must do so urgently, on a basis that is, and is clearly seen to be, free of the poisonous factionalism that, at present, threatens to leave us naked to our enemies.