The Source of the Intelligence Legitimacy Problem

Ben Wittes went to a secret meeting on “Intelligence Challenges” and came away with the realization that even as we are more reliant on intelligence, the public has grown more skeptical of the government’s use of it.

And from the beginning of the day, one theme has arisen repeatedly: call it the “intelligence legitimacy paradox.”

The paradox, about which more than one speakers has wrung his or her hands, is that the threat environment America faces is growing ever more complicated and multifaceted, and the ability to meet it is growing ever-more-deeply dependent on first-rate intelligence. Yet at precisely the same time, the public has grown deeply anxious about our intelligence authorities and our intelligence community is facing a profound crisis of legitimacy over its basic authorities to collect.

The explanation for the paradox, I think, is simple: technology. The core reason the American threat environment is so complicated is the spread of technology. It’s what gives rise to global terrorist groups, to cyber threats, and it’s what allows relatively weak nations to play in the big leagues of international power politics. But at the same time, technological change is also the fundamental reason for the intelligence legitimacy crisis. The more ubiquitously communications technology spreads and the more integrated it all becomes globally, after all, the more that surveillance of the bad guys—in all their complexity—requires the intelligence community to surveil systems that we all use every day too.

Curiously, Ben doesn’t consider some other far more likely possibilities, all of which I suspect are at least as important:

  • The government trumped up a war on false intelligence. The war killed hundreds of thousands, badly exacerbating the terrorist threat in front of us, and bankrupted our country.
  • The government chooses to apply “intelligence” to some problems — terrorists and cybertheft of defense contractors and crafting trade deals that send more manufacturing jobs overseas — but not to others — finding and holding accountable the people who ruined our economy. Intelligence no longer serves the average person’s interests, and at times serves interests very much opposed to the average person.
  • The intelligence community’s excessive secrecy, punctured by exposure that shows the secrets weren’t really all that secret and in fact were kept secret largely because the average person might object, discredit it. So too does the hypocrisy exposed when those secrets come out. So too does the government’s use of secrecy to gain an advantage when litigating against its citizens.

Technology may have contributed to the way these things delegitimized intelligence, because it made it easier to demonstrate the lies behind the Iraq War, the corruption of the press, the unwillingness to take on more pressing threats to the average person, the hypocrisy behind the secrecy of power.

And technology may make the threats the government deigns to fight more effective.

But underlying it, the legitimacy problems are more primary. They are earned by the intelligence community, not created by the technology it faces. They are exacerbated by an increasing distance between the intelligence world — those select with clearance — and the people they very distantly claim to serve.

Sure, it might be easier for the government to fight these threats if it hadn’t already squandered its legitimacy. But it squandered it in ways that are unrelated to technology.

14 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    if you start thinking from the psuedo-paradox that wittes mentions (“more and more, terribler and terribler”),

    you will NEVER be able to think analytically about national security or the nsa’s (properly very limited) role in national security. this is what happens when darzee the tailor bird stares into the eyes of nag the cobra and is hypnotized with terror.

    put another way, the original american terrorists in any modern time period have been those who are the designated counter-terrorists, joined by those corporations and national politicians who make much money off of helping the government with the threats they helped initiate or amplify.

    one must always begin natsec analysis with extreme scepticism and distrust of insider threats :))) . no suggested threat or scary-scary threat scenario must be accepted without extensive positive evidence of its likelihood having been presented and checked.

    remember this:

    can current threat/scary-scary scenario any scarier than the nuclear bombs/end-of-the-world scenarios of the ’50’s and ’60’s –

    well,maybe it was the scary-scary scenario of world being conquered by godless communism.

    then, later, the drug lords

    then the wmd-ers, who turned out not to have wmd’s.

    this play-the-people-and-the-politicians-for-suckers game has been going on since the mid-40’s.

    cyber-security? well,possibly but lets see lots of hard evidence for and lots of hard evidence for probably not (like fuccing your own people over when you try to fucc over some other folk).

    this approach does not even consider another factor – what unimagined/ignored threats might happen – like fungal infections of cereal crops or inexorably rising tides.

    and keep in mind too when sleeping soundly after listening to the likes of wittes wring his hands and cry aloud –

    some likely very serious problems are not being considered because of political pressure and lack of political and media pressure – need i write “rapid, carbon fuels induced, global warming”.

  2. TarheelDem says:

    It is amazing the obtuseness of these folk.

    It is obvious that secrecy by its nature corrodes democracy and democratic legitimacy, and that absolute secrecy with no checks and balances–which is what Congress has allow to be institutionalized since 1941–corrodes democracy absolutely.

    The fact that the public is catching on has astounded the insiders. And they are trying to divine a strategy to put the cat back in the bag, the pig back in the poke, and pretend that they are the saviors of democracy again.

    Intelligence is a structural contradiction for democracies that takes creativity to handle well. The United States has prided itself for 228 years on being a blunt force sort of nation. The “Empire of Liberty” has now come to account as in decline on the first and in denial on the second.

  3. Don Bacon says:

    The basic assumption here is that the “intelligence community ” is a distinct entity separate from others, which is incorrect. Intelligence is tightly interwoven with Defense, State, Drug enforcement and Homeland Security, to name a few relationships.
    A current example is Benghazi, which was a CIA operation not a consulate as often portrayed, especially when H. Clinton is forced to take the responsibility because nobody of importance can disparage the CIA (and live). And in fact Ambassador Stevens was away from his primary post in Tripoli and playing CIA agent in Benghazi, shipping arms to Turkey for use in Syria, when he met his demise. It’s difficult to distinguish State from CIA, any more. Defense is similar especially with the special forces — CIA similarity.
    And as for “paradox” — the public has grown deeply anxious about our intelligence authorities — that’s poppycock. “The public has grown deeply anxious” give me a break. Who the hell cares about “the public?” Nobody, that’s who. The public’s opinions are easily formed by the garbage put out by the MSM — and that includes the crap published by Wittes’ Lawfare as seen here in ‘Today’s Headlines.”
    So what is Wittes (and Brookings) pushing here? It can’t be good.

  4. ess emm says:

    EW ,I would like to suggest you missed another source of the illegitimacy (but one that you have mentioned elsewhere). The secret Intelligence institutions (let’s not call them something so friendly as a community) are not just about the defense of America, but they are institutions being used to defend the EMPIRE.
    The public and democracy are only seen as a threat to EMPIRE by the secret Intelligence elites. You can only run an Empire in secret. As TarheelDem says, there is a “structural contradiction”.
    We see the contradiction and are afraid the Intelligence elites will be tempted to rule domestically with the same methods they use to run the Empire. We worry we may be designated “the enemy” for dissent against Empire. And there will always be David Addington or John Yoo-clones willing to sit in a comfortable DC office and draft a memorandum justifying a policy—quoting the Framers, I’m sure—to mercilessly crush dissent. The FBI is one Intelligence institution that will be used secretly, always secretly, to implement that policy.
    Finally, Don Bacon is right, Lawfare’s Today’s Headlines are one simply one blast of US foreign policy propaganda after another. It’s the daily compendium of the “corruption of the press”!

    • emptywheel says:

      Fair enough. I sort of was thinking of that in bullet 2, but you’re right. It deserves to be called out separately.

  5. Les says:

    Add to bullet 2, the government chooses to apply intelligence to curry favor with governments and warlors in targeting their opponents in exchange for their “cooperation”. Remember the US was exposed for targeting groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan that had nothing to do with terrorism. Of course, one you go down this road, it’s almost a certainty that grassroots opposition to the government increases and a cycle of reprisal attacks on the US and the local government begins. The US analysts then use this as “proof” that we targeted the right people…

  6. scribe says:

    You left out one bullet point, EW: the repeated, consistent and totally transparent, call-’em-out-in-5-seconds-or-less lies – really big whoppers – that get told the minute some truth comes out, combined with the total lack of retributive justice against the liars.

    Lie to Congress? Get promoted.
    Lie to the press? Get promoted.

    And so it goes….

    Enough of that and the average schlub, who knows that if he fibs on his taxes he’ll have the whole weight of the government land on him, gets pretty darn cynical and pretty darn fast.

    TurboTax Timmeh, as in your next post, is just the latest iteration.

    • Peterr says:


      The absence of accountability for the intelligence community while the broader public seems to be more and more burdened with it is not lost on ordinary folks. I’m not talking about the “why didn’t you catch X before X did Y?” accountability, but about the “you broke the law and disobeyed our court orders, but we’ll give you a stern talking to and tell you never to do it again” crap that FISC seems to consider the appropriate way to deal with lawyers that lie to them.

      Around KC, there have been a number of search warrants issued and executed, built on the thinnest of evidence — the targets were known to be shopping at a store that sells hydroponics and other indoor garden supplies. You know who uses indoor garden supplies, don’t you? Pot growers. OK, so do tomato growers and all kinds of others, but still — if you shop at a hydroponics store, the police would like to go through your house.

      No, I’m not kidding. (But on the bright side, at least they got a warrant first.)

      If this is the crap that ordinary folks have to put up with, and then they see Jay Bybee and his lifetime appointment to the federal bench, and see Dick Cheney blathering on the Sunday talk shows about the need to hold Hillary Clinton accountable for Benghazi, and see . . . you get the idea.

      You get it, I get it, Marcy gets it, but poor Ben is apparently clueless.

  7. JDM says:

    I’m sure when Bernie Maddoff asks himself why rich people no longer trust him with their money, his answer is also technological change.

  8. Rayne says:

    IMO, the question of legitimacy stems in no small part from

    Monopolistic/oligopolistic behavior toward information collection and usage (there is no other power to which the hunter/gatherers submit their efforts for true audit/review/control);

    Future shock — the explosion, profusion, dispersion of technology at rates beyond the average person’s ability to comprehend its development, operations, and daily use means that only a technical elite will be able to control it and the content passing through it.

    The intelligence community’s growing unease lies in the combination of these two factors. They know they no longer have control; they are being forced to look outside of their immediate, blinkered perspective to meta application of technology and its impact. Possessing a monopoly on human information means they possess monopoly on responsibility; they can’t articulate this, but the weightiness must be pressing on them with each new revelation.

    The One Percent think they control the monopoly, but they are struggling with cognitive dissonance about intelligence technology as much as the Ninety-Nine Percent. Some of the unease may stem from a growing awareness that not even the masters of the universe have a handle on this beast, which grows restless under loose reins.

  9. FluffytheObeseCat says:

    Really good post. Your 3 items are spot on, and they are the sort of glaringly obvious facts that insiders like Wittes never, ever discuss — irrespective of their right v. left biases.

    If you get within spitting distance of any of them, you highlight the skew in the distribution of power in the U.S. today. That’s a major Beltway no-no.

  10. chronicle says:

    quote”The explanation for the paradox, I think, is simple: technology”unquote

    DIGITAL technology to be exact. The two edged sword. For all the good it has brought, may be for naught. Even in the 70’s, I saw where the digital revolution was leading. In fact, it has come back to bite us in the ass. Big time. Although, climate change will make it moot. Eventually.

  11. C says:

    Given his focus on “Technology” I would be shocked, shocked I say! to find that this panel was organized by more than a few companies that sell the equipment “necessary” to surveil the communications equipment we use every day.

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