The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Snowden-type leaks will force the U.S. to be more transparent

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Eli Lake at the Daily Beast has a new article arguing that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has tried to balance increased sharing of information within the intelligence community with increased punishment of those who leak information outside it. As the Monkey Cage has already discussed, the 9/11 Commission’s report on sharing made it easier for former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden to collect information from a variety of databases.

Snowden pilfered documents from databases designed to share intelligence more broadly within the government. Promoting this integration of secrets is the primary mission of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). The office was created on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that faulted the intelligence agencies for jealously guarding information that could have prevented the attacks of that day. Clapper and his predecessors were supposed to help transform the intelligence community’s “need to know” culture to one of “need to share.” Snowden (and Chelsea Manning before him) were able to exploit the reforms promoted by the office Clapper now leads.

Political pressures from the commission and the aftermath of the second Iraq war led the U.S. intelligence community to set up Wikipedia-like structures, where intelligence analysts could easily organize information and make it accessible to others. This screen capture from The Intercept appears to show that the intelligence agencies of other countries in the “Five Eyes” club (Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) have also have created Wikis, likely following the United States’s lead, and allow U.S. analysts some level of access to these Wikis.

Lake’s article suggests that U.S. policy makers are having great difficulty in figuring out what to do next. Clapper believes that there will be more Snowden-type leaks in the future. Ben Rhodes, the deputy National Security Adviser, argues that the United States will have to be “more transparent” in making a case for what the United States is doing in secret, so as to limit the damage and fallout from leaks.

This leads into broader questions about how these leaks affect U.S. foreign policy, which are the topic of a debate in the new issue of Foreign Affairs between Michael Cohen of the Century Foundation, and Martha Finnemore and I. On the one side of this debate, there are arguments that leaks like these don’t really have major long-term consequences. Cohen believes that the leaks illustrate that what the United States says more or less matches up to what it does in private, and that even if they did provide proof of U.S. hypocrisy, it wouldn’t really change other states’ behavior. Finnemore and I, in contrast, think that these kinds of leaks may make U.S. foreign policy substantially more difficult, because they both damage U.S. legitimacy, and make it harder for other states to pretend that they don’t know what the United States is in fact doing.

If Cohen is right, the public brouhaha will likely soon die down, and international politics will return to normal. If Finnemore and I are right, the United States will, as Rhodes notes, have to be more transparent in future, not only to prevent U.S. public outrage, but also to shore up international diplomacy. It will also have to think far more carefully than in the past about the trade-offs involved in its less politically defensible actions, since these are more likely to come to light than they were before Chelsea Manning and Snowden.