Intelligence Oversight

In Praise of Alex Joel

By Robert S. Litt
Tuesday, July 16, 2019, 2:31 PM

It’s recently been announced that Alex Joel, who has served as the civil liberties protection officer in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) for 14 years, is leaving the ODNI. I had the privilege of working closely with Alex, and learning from him, during some turbulent times for the intelligence community. At a time when the intelligence community is under attack, it is appropriate to honor Alex as an exemplar of the dedicated public servants who work in U.S. intelligence agencies.

The position of civil liberties protection officer (CLPO) in the ODNI was established by statute to “ensure that the protection of civil liberties and privacy is appropriately incorporated” in intelligence community policies, to oversee compliance by the ODNI with all laws and policies relating to privacy and civil liberties, and to serve a variety of other functions relating to privacy and civil liberties. Alex has been the CLPO since the ODNI was stood up and has served both the public and the intelligence community well.

Alex is the rare person who is able to hold in his head at the same time the equally important concepts of national security and privacy and civil liberties, and has always resisted the idea that there is a trade-off between them—that improved security necessarily diminishes privacy and civil liberties and vice versa. Rather, Alex believes that it is possible to protect both and has spent his time at the ODNI working to achieve that goal. He is respected both by those within the intelligence community and by privacy and civil liberties advocates for his candor, his knowledge and experience, his civility, and his good nature.

Alex has made the important goal of greater transparency for intelligence activities one of his principal focuses, so much so that he had the name of his office changed to add “Transparency” to “Privacy and Civil Liberties.” He developed the Principles of Intelligence Transparency for the Intelligence Community and his office has issued annual reports that have provided important insight for the public. It’s fair to say that he has been instrumental in the ongoing effort to inform the public about the important work the intelligence community does, and about the protections and safeguards for privacy and civil liberties that imbue that work. Alex also developed the Principles of Professional Ethics for the Intelligence Community, which were issued by the director of national intelligence in 2014.

Alex will be spending the next year as a scholar in residence at American University. His successor, Ben Huebner, comes with a sterling background at the Department of Justice and the CIA. Given Alex’s lasting accomplishments, Ben has large and important shoes to fill.