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U.S. Intelligence Is Facing a Crisis of Legitimacy

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The need for good intelligence has never been more visible. The failure of the Israeli security services to anticipate the brutal surprise attack carried out by Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023 reveals what happens when intelligence goes wrong.

In contrast, in late February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s planned three-day “special military operation” to invade Ukraine and topple the government was pushed onto the back foot by the U.S. and U.K. intelligence communities. While Putin’s rapid seizure of Crimea by a flood of “little green men”  in 2014 was a fait accompli, by the time of the 2022 invasion, anticipatory moves including the public declassification of sensitive intelligence ensured that both the intelligence community and Ukraine remained a step ahead of Putin’s plans.

Yet, despite the clear and enduring need for good intelligence to support effective statecraft, national security, and military operations, U.S. intelligence agencies and practitioners are undermined by a crisis of legitimacy. Recent research investigating public attitudes toward the U.S. intelligence community offers some sobering trends.

A May 2023 poll conducted by the Harvard University Center for American Political Studies and Harris Poll found that an eye-watering 70 percent of Americans surveyed were either “very” or “somewhat” concerned about “interference by the FBI and intelligence agencies in a future presidential election.”

A separate study, conducted in 2021 and 2022 by the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, found that only 56 percent of Americans thought that the intelligence community “plays a vital role in warning against foreign threats and contributes to our national security.” That number is down 10 points from a previous high—if it can even be called that—of 66 percent in 2019, and the downward trend does not give us cause for optimism. Reframed, that statistic means that in 2022, an alarming (in our view) 44 percent of Americans did not believe that the intelligence community keeps them safe from foreign threats or contributes to U.S. national security.

Worse, despite abundant examples of authoritarian aggression and worldwide terror attacks, nearly 1 in 5 Americans seem to be confused about where the real threats to their liberty are actually emanating from. According to the UT Austin study, a growing number of Americans thought that the intelligence community represented a threat to civil liberties: 17 percent in 2022, up from 12 percent in 2021. A nontrivial percentage of Americans feel that the intelligence community is an insidious threat instead of a valuable protector in a dangerous world—a perspective that jeopardizes the security and prosperity of the United States and its allies.

The most obvious recent example of the repercussions of the corrosion of trust in the intelligence community is the recent drama over reauthorizing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). First introduced in the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, Section 702 is an important legal authority for the U.S. intelligence community to conduct targeted surveillance of foreign persons located outside the United States, with the compelled assistance of electronic communication service providers. According to a report published by Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI), 702 is “extremely valuable” and “provides intelligence on activities of terrorist organizations, weapons proliferators, spies, malicious cyber actors, and other foreign adversaries.”

Section 702 was scheduled to “sunset” at the end of 2023 if not reauthorized. Yet Congress failed to reauthorize 702 by the end of 2023, electing to punt the decision—as is so often the case—to this spring, when it was finally reauthorized (with some important reforms) in late April 2024, but it was only extended for two years instead of the customary five. An unusual alliance of the far right and the far left squeezed centrists and the Biden administration, which was strongly pushing for a renewal that would protect the civil liberties of U.S. citizens and not needlessly hobble the intelligence community in protecting the United States itself.

But the frantic down-to-the-wire negotiations about reauthorizing some recognizable form of 702 obscured a deeper problem at the heart of the contemporary Americans’ relationship with intelligence that has been brewing over the last decade: The fundamental legitimacy of a strong intelligence community—and the integrity of its practitioners—has been questioned by U.S. lawmakers on the far left and the far right, perhaps reflecting a misguided but increasing consensus of tens of millions of Americans.

This trend is now a crisis.

Section 702’s troubled journey faced queries from the privacy-oriented left, where those with overblown concerns about potential abuse by the intelligence community viewed reauthorizing 702 is tantamount to “turning cable installers into spies,” in the words of one opinion contributor published in The Hill. The intelligence community’s revised authorities (some adjustments were required given the 15 years of communications technology development since the amendment was first passed) were called “terrifying” and predictably—the most hackneyed description for intelligence tools—“Orwellian.” On the power-skeptical right, Section 702 is perceived as but another powerful surveillance tool of the so-called deep state.

In response to legitimate concerns about past mistakes, the intelligence community has adopted procedural reforms and enhanced training that it says would account for the overwhelming majority of the (self-reported) mistakes in querying 702 collection. According to a report from the Justice Department’s National Security Division, the FBI achieved a 98 percent compliance rate in 2023 after receiving better training. Further, the Justice Department and the DNI have gone to unprecedented lengths to publicly show—through declassified success stories—the real dangers that allowing 702 to lapse would bring to the United States and its allies.

Never before has an intelligence community begged, cajoled, and pleaded with lawmakers to enable it to do its job. After all, a hobbled intelligence community would still be held responsible should a war warning be missed, or should a terrorist attack occur.

For instance, Gen. Eric Vidaud, the French military intelligence chief, was promptly fired over intelligence failings related to Putin’s (re)invasion of Ukraine despite the Elysée’s criticisms of the warnings made by the United States and United Kingdom as “alarmist.” And Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, director of Israeli military intelligence, recently resigned over the Oct. 7 attacks despite the fault probably lying across Israel’s political landscape as well. Intelligence professionals pay more than their share of the bill when their crystal ball stays cloudy.

The hullabaloo over 702 is not the only recent instance painting the actions of the U.S. national security apparatus as questionable state activity conducted by dishonest bureaucrats, and some recent history helps put the recent events into a broader downward trend in trust.

In 2013, National Security Agency (NSA) mass-leaker Edward Snowden, a junior network IT specialist with a Walter Mitty complex, sparked a needed but distorted global conversation about the legitimacy of intelligence collection when he stole more than 1.5 million NSA documents and fled to China and ultimately Russia. The mischaracterization of NSA programs conveyed by Snowden and his allies (painting them as more intrusive and less subject to legal scrutiny than they were) led to popular misunderstandings about the intelligence community’s methods and oversight.

It was not only junior leakers whose unfounded criticism helped to corrode public faith in intelligence; it has also been a bipartisan political effort. In 2009, then-U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed that the CIA had lied to her after she wished to distance herself from the agency’s “enhanced interrogation techniques”—which critics call torture. But Pelosi’s comments earned a “false” rating from Politifact’s “truth-o-meter.” Then-CIA Director Leon Panetta countered that “CIA officers briefed truthfully.”

Some suspicion of a powerful intelligence community stems from genuine failings of the past, especially the CIA’s activities in the early and middle stages of the Cold War, which included some distasteful assassination plots, the illegal collection of intelligence domestically (such as surveillance of Americans on political grounds, including illegally opening their mail), and the LSD experimentation on unwitting Americans as part of its infamous MKULTRA program.

Most of these excesses—characterized as the CIA’s “Family Jewels”—were reported to Congress, which held explosive hearings in 1975 to publicize these activities, bringing the intelligence agencies into the public realm like never before. Images of Sen. Frank Church holding aloft a poison dart gun, designed by the CIA to incapacitate and induce a heart attack in foreign leaders, became front page news. These serious failings in accountability were the dawn of rigorous intelligence oversight.

Public trust in government was already sinking when, in 1971, the Pentagon Papers revealed that politicians had lied about US activities in the deeply unpopular Vietnam war. The Watergate scandal the following year added fuel to fire. Although the CIA was not directly involved in Watergate, the involvement of former agency employees led to a wider belief that the agency was tainted. And in the late 1970s, CIA morale sank to an all-time low when then-President Jimmy Carter began the process of sharply reducing its staff, attributing the decision to its “shocking” activities.

In response to congressional findings and mountains of bad press, subsequent directors of the CIA considered the criticisms and made numerous changes to how the intelligence community operates. While the intelligence community (and its leaders) made good-faith efforts to operate strictly within its legal boundaries, be more responsive to congressional oversight, and embrace some level of transparency, the public image of the CIA and the broader intelligence community didn’t change. After the Cold War ended, the preeminent vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, called twice for the disbanding of the CIA. Such political pummeling of the role of intelligence and the integrity of its practitioners was bound to leave a mark.

The politics of distrust are back to the bad old days. By 2016, distrust of the intelligence community had returned with a vengeance: then-presidential candidate Donald Trump claimed that NSA was circumventing domestic legal constructs to spy on his campaign through its close partnership with the Government Communications headquarters (GCHQ), the British signals intelligence agency. (The NSA said those claims were false and GCHQ called them “utterly ridiculous”.) As president-elect, Trump also compared U.S. intelligence to “living in Nazi Germany.” Once Trump entered the Oval Office, the FBI was a frequent target for his invective thanks to the investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election.

While the intelligence community is a long way away from the excesses of the 1970s, it is not perfect. Intelligence is an art, not a science. It is not prediction so much as narrowing the cone of uncertainty for decision-makers to act in a complex world. Even when acting strictly within the law and under the scrutiny of Congress and multiple inspectors general, the intelligence community has been wrong on several important occasions. It failed to stop the 9/11 attacks, got the assessment that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction spectacularly wrong, and was made to look impotent by Osama bin Laden for nearly a decade before the U.S. Navy SEALs caught up with him on a CIA mission in Pakistan in May 2011.

Errors still happen because intelligence is hard, and the occasional failure to warn, to stop every attack, or to prevent every incorrect search query is inevitable. Today, mistakes are self-reported to Congress; they are no longer hidden away as they sometimes were in the past. Yet the intelligence community has done a poor job telling its own story and self-censors due to widespread over-classification—a problem that the DNI has acknowledged, if not yet remedied. It has only belatedly begun to embrace the transparency required for a modern intelligence apparatus in a democratic state, and there is much work yet to be done.

It is the job of the intelligence agencies to keep a calm and measured eye on dark developments. In a world in which the panoply of threats is increasing, the role of the intelligence community and its responsibilities within democratic states has never been greater. If the community cannot be trusted by its political masters in the White House and Congress, much less the American people, then it will not be given the ability to “play to the edge,” and the risk is that the United States and its allies will be blind to the threats facing them. Given the adversaries, the consequences could be severe.

U.S. intelligence has had a rebirth of confidence since 9/11 and the incorrect judgments of the Iraqi weapons program. It was intelligence and special operations that hunted and killed bin Laden, U.S. law enforcement that has kept the U.S. homeland safe from another massive terror attack, and the intelligence community correctly predicted the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

That increased sense of purpose and morale is moot if the U.S. people, Congress, or the president (sitting or future) do not trust them. This crisis of legitimacy is a trend that may soon hamper the intelligence community, and the results could be unthinkable. Getting the balance between civil liberties and security right isn’t an easy task, but the intelligence community must have the tools, trust, and oversight required to simultaneously keep faith with the American people while serving as their first line of defense.