The Intelligence Legitimacy Paradox

By Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, May 15, 2014, 6:14 PM

I have spent the day, which is not over yet in Palo Alto, at a conference at the Hoover Institution on "Intelligence Challenges." The rules of the workshop, unfortunately, prohibit me from disclosing who is saying what---or even naming the individuals who are present, though the participants include significant intelligence community figures, civil libertarians, legislative leaders, military officers, and more than one senior diplomatic official. It's a truly remarkable group.

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. In other words, the same technologies that are making the threat picture more complicated, more diverse, and more bewildering are also bringing the intelligence process into closer day-to-day contact with people living their daily lives. These technologies also require intelligence agencies, to be effective, to touch giant volumes of material, most of which is utterly anodyne. The more the community does these things, as it must, the more people it offends and the more legitimacy problems it creates for itself.

Technology, in other words, is a coin with two sides---or maybe a die with many sides. It empowers the bad guys, multiplying threats. It also empowers the intelligence community to collect against the bad guys. But to do so, it requires that the intelligence community interact with a huge range of innocent communications too. And in the course of doing that, the community necessarily engages with technological infrastructure---and the individuals who use it---on bases that make people really uncomfortable and thus erodes the community's legitimacy.

The paradox seems to me irresolvable unless we are maturely willing to live with either heightened risk or with robust intelligence authorities. Sometimes we do respond to new technologies by shrugging off risk; for example, we choose to live with ubiquitous guns despite the risks to innocents of a pervasively armed society---and we have for a long time. It may well be that we have to accept both more risk and more surveillance in the current environment. But we also should not expect legitimacy to come easily in this technological environment. The more deeply the community surveils infrastructure with which the public engages intimately, the more it will have to establish legitimacy in an ongoing and iterative fashion.