Cyber Defense Review

The Value of Intelligence and Secrets

By Dr. Aaron Brantly | April 05, 2017

Secretary of State Henry Stimson was famously quoted “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail” in 1929. Just a couple years later during the 1930-31 London Naval Conference and the 1932 Geneva Disarmament Conference, Secretary Stimson would come to understand and appreciate the value of national security intelligence and would reverse himself. The value of intelligence to both the United States and our allies would become of paramount importance during World War II and in the Cold War to follow. Whether the breaking of Enigma codes, the Purple codes of the Japanese or the use of double agents in the United Kingdom, intelligence saved lives and provided strategic and tactical advantages.

Intelligence is not a new state activity, but one that is thousands of years old rooted in classical antiquity. For as long as humans have been bipedal and walked the earth they have sought advantages over one another and their environment. In our modern hyper-partisan environment, an era of liberal democracy and utopian goals of radical transparency many are quick to condemn our intelligence community (IC). We decry their sources and methods, but even more so we decry their failures when they infrequently occur. As a nation and people, our IC faces a paradox, we ask them to provide perfect protection, but we work hard to limit the techniques and tools by which to achieve our stated objectives.

As a liberal democracy, we have every right to constrain the state which we establish. Members of our intelligence community recognize and respect this right. As General (Ret.) Michael Hayden has been quoted numerous times and wrote a book discussing that the intelligence community plays to the edge of acceptable behavior. They go right up to the legal, ethical, and moral lines that we establish, but no further. They serve at the pleasure of those whom we elect to represent our interests. Their mission depends upon collecting information and developing intelligence products to keep us safe. This requires the manipulation of human assets (spies), the manipulation of computers and similar devices, the breaking of signals, the collection of images and signatures from a variety of sources. These activities are accomplished within the constraints of US law and under the supervision of the Executive Branch, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, as well as the Senate and House Armed Services Committee and a bevy of other oversight organizations dispersed throughout the US government can and should be considered reasonable and unsurprising functions of intelligence services.

The most recent WikiLeaks document dump does not serve the national good, but rather harms efforts of well-intentioned professionals working to provide intelligence on adversaries who would seek to do us harm. For the better part of the last three years, I have been researching the online behaviors of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. These organizations are well-attuned to technology and its vulnerabilities. They actively seek to evade intelligence and law-enforcement agencies by using encrypted communications and a variety of platforms. They actively crowdsource and train one another on best practices. The release of these documents whether verified or not harms efforts of professionals working tirelessly to put together a complex mosaic of bits of intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks and strategic and tactical surprise. The release of this information while temporarily serving the benefit of patching and protecting individuals outside of the gaze of the US IC likely harms efforts to understand and track terrorists who desire to attack the homeland and our allies. Time and again I have seen intelligence leaks spread through the jihadist communities like wildfire, and within days the tactics, techniques, and procedures for avoiding intelligence and law enforcement agencies have changed. Leaks such as the recent WikiLeaks disclosures do not make us safer; they provide those who wish to harm us with an information edge and degrade our national security.

We as a nation, like Secretary Stimson, detest other’s reading our mail, but we should not forsake the value of the intelligence community and the work it does to keep the nation safe. We should work through our elected leaders to convey the lines within which we wish our intelligence professionals to operate and should consistently pressure our elected officials to keep watch over those we empower to protect us. Intelligence does and will continue to provide value to the nation and to achieve this value requires secrecy and the development of sources and methods that often reside beyond the public spotlight.    

Aaron F. Brantly is Assistant Professor of International Relations in the Departments of Social Sciences and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Cyber Policy Fellow at the Army Cyber Institute and Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.