On Loyalty and Secrecy


WWII SAEDA Poster – USGPO – src: http://www.usmm.org/postertalk2b.html


Many of my friends – all fellow liberals – have been shocked by the vehemence with which I have condemned Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.  Because of my generally liberal politics, their assumption is that I would value the men’s apparent act of conscience – their desire to see the “right thing” done – over their violation of their oaths of secrecy.  I do not, and here is why.

I have been an intelligence professional for over twenty years.  I am proud to be a member  of the Intelligence Community – an elite group of women and men whom I consider to be some of the finest people I have ever known.  Intelligence professionals bring a diverse set of skills to the table:  language proficiency, technical know-how, effective writing and speaking skills, the ability to organize and analyze complex information from disparate sources, the ability to think quickly under high stress, knowledge of other cultures and social systems, and psychology training – just to name a few.  There is one trait, however, that every single one of us has – absolutely and unequivocally:  we can keep a secret.

Secrecy is the lifeblood of intelligence work, not because we fear oversight or because our actions cannot withstand the scrutiny of the light of day, but because the lives of others depend on our ability to keep information – even apparently insignificant details – out of the hands of those seeking to harm our citizens.  Whether the topic is troop movements, collection methodologies, or the placement of covert agents – iron clad secrecy is fundamental and essential to effective intelligence operations.  The efforts, risks, and sacrifices of thousands of people working over the course of years can be compromised by one file copied carelessly onto a USB drive.

As a result, the safety of our nation requires a class of people for whom secrecy is the highest virtue, people on whom we can rely to never, under any circumstance, reveal classified information.  Those people are intelligence professionals, and we hold to the antiquated, anachronistic definition of “honor” that means we value our oath of secrecy over comfort, convenience, expedience, or other loyalties.  This is not hyperbole, nor is it overkill – it is absolutely necessary that we have such people for our nation to be safe.

What about the other requirements of honor?  What happens when one of us learns that members or agencies of our government – the body which acts on behalf of all of us who are “we the people” – act in a way that is cruel, dishonorable, illegal, or evil?  The simple answer is that we must act to prevent such things where possible, and punish them when necessary; but there are processes in place for just those purposes.  There are oversight committees, ombudsman inspectors, and open door policies – all within the cleared community – and each offers recourse for reporting abuses.

Are these methods perfect?  No.  Will some things, even shameful and patently wrong actions, slip through the cracks?  Almost assuredly.  No system is perfect, and if the Manning and Snowden cases indicate failures in those oversight processes we should pour considerable resources into resolving those failures.

That does not exonerate Manning and Snowden.  Even if there were no obvious casualties from their leaks, even if none of the information they provided would be of intelligence value to our enemies, even if they only made public information that our enemies already knew – they still broke their oaths of secrecy.  Every member of the intelligence community, from the PFC all-source analyst in a TOC to the National Security Adviser, only sees a piece of the puzzle.  It is not our job to determine what is and is not of value to our enemies.

It is our job to be people whom the nation can trust to always, in every circumstance, keep every single secret which has been entrusted to us.  That is a sacred trust, and failing in it is a cardinal sin.  It is, in fact, the cardinal sin, and those who commit it – except under torture – are traitors.

There are other jobs, other virtues, and other sins, and I think it is important that we have a public, national dialogue on what we consider the proper, ethical path for our nation to follow – both in overt politics and in covert intelligence.  Whatever that path, the lives of our warfighters, our public safety personnel, our civilians, and our allies all depend on the willingness of the intelligence community to do, under any circumstance, what we have promised to do – keep our nation’s secrets no matter what.

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  • I think the thing about Snowden that really, I don’t get is….

    We already knew. I didn’t think there was anyone who didn’t think the government was doing this. Like, wtf. You blew the whistle on the worst undercover thing ever.. and expect a pat on the back for it?

  • MC1RMutant

    Isn’t there a conflict of interest, though? If these reporting mechanisms only exist within the cleared community, what is the likelihood that people who’s jobs depend on these programs to find fault with them? Where does that leave the citizens of a nation that has become increasingly secret over the last two decades? Is placing our faith in Congress the only option? As a citizen who was given no choice, I find no comfort in this.

    Also consider the scope of the potential problem. If there’s a problem with the entire program, what is the likelihood that someone with objections like Snowden could have produced real change within the existing mechanisms? Slim to nil, I’d bet. The scope of the NSA programs are just too large. I also understand the Snowden wasn’t paid to determine the worth of these secrets, but with something that has near universal support within the government (from Congress, POTUS, Intel, etc.) what recourse do citizens have? Polls indicate support isn’t nearly so universal outside of the government. If we want this to change what do we do? Vote for a new POTUS that’s strong on civil liberties? That sure didn’t work out in 2008.

    The potential for abuse is high and it seems that everyone in government is on board with it. From a citizen’s perspective, the system of checks and balances seems to have been replaced with a rubber stamp. And it all seems to have been done in secret. That’s far more scary to me than any potential terrorist plot.

    Finally to Stephanie Dorman: Of course everyone has thought this was happening. There was no confirmation though because it was all classified. The confirmation makes it an entirely different issue. It’s hard to citizens to debate their government when their government won’t acknowledge that these things exist. Also: Snowden has been very clear that he knew exactly what the consequences would be before he took action. He expected the very opposite of a pat on the back for it.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply. It is because of the very concerns you mention that there is civilian oversight of intelligence work, by people who are outside the IC but who have nonetheless been cleared. Yes, I think oversight should be better, less partisan, and more ethical – and the only way to accomplish that is through the electoral process. I don’t see how individual intelligence personnel violating their oaths improves that process, and – even if it did – the price would be too high in my opinion.

  • Colin

    An interesting piece, Joshua. I have found myself ambivalent about this particular case, and largely appalled about the Manning case. In the latter case, the wholesale leaking of thousands of pieces of information, with no particular point that tied them together, suggested leaking for the sake of leaking, not an act driven by conscience; it was indiscriminate, and thus incredibly reckless.

    In the case of Snowden, I’m more ambivalent. On the one hand, this program appears to violate the wording of the Fourth Amendment; the admin does appear to have followed the laws as they exist, reporting to congress and seeking judicial authorization via the rubber-stamp of the FISA court. Most of these are mechanisms approved by congress, who speak for The People. I havent found Snowden a particularly sympathetic figure; I lack the insider’s feeling of betrayal, but he does seem to be stunningly naive and stupid about the world beyond his ideals. He seems to be digging himself a deeper and deeper hole with each passing day.

    I agree with you that we need a frank dialogue on what we are doing in the intel domain. I do not at all trust the oversight mechanisms as they exist. The Bush admin regularly demonstrated the kind of abuses of an executive branch emboldened by a sense of righteousness in its mission. The FISA courts seem to approve just about everything, while cases brought in the conventional judiciary routes often just get shot down on the grounds of “national security” with no explanation and no justice for those who have been harmed; as such, even if such programs do violate the Fourth Amendment, how would we ever know, and how would we ever stop it? Congress is an odd hybrid of a small number of people allowed knowledge of a lot, and a large number of people who know relatively little; taken together, they and their staffers are a collective sieve, leakier than a rusty bucket, and so it’s understandable that the intel community would hold back as many details from them as they could. I do not trust the intel community to police itself, simply because any insular human organization is subject to groupthink.

    A large part of public thinking on this is, of course, affected by selection bias. The only stories we tend to hear about are those where oversight fails, we don’t hear about those where oversight works. So, it’s easy to presume that oversight is more problematic than it is. But, as a scholar of human psychology, as someone who teaches the problems of human decision-making and group action, I worry about a system that is highly driven by mission and isolated from transparency. Yes, I’m sure the vast majority of those who work in the intel community are excellent, honorable people. But, as someone who watches in horror as money, politics, emotion and ambition trump judgment and reason and the Constitution in all three of the executive, judicial, and legislative branches, it is hard to presume they behave better in secret than they do in public. And, it is hard to believe that the leadership of the intel community, many of them political appointees or people who have succeeded in the politics of ambition, are not subject to those same influences.