The National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade in 2013. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

Michael V. Hayden is a principal at the Chertoff Group, a security and risk management advisory firm with clients in the technology sector. He was director of the National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005 and the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2009.

As director of the National Security Agency and then the Central Intelligence Agency after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, I fought to provide our intelligence officers with every possible advantage in their work to detect and confront threats from our enemies.

We were entering a new kind of conflict. I had grown to professional maturity in an era in which it was NATO vs. the Soviet Union, and our enemy — with its tank divisions in Eastern Europe and intercontinental ballistic missile silos in our sights — was easy to find, though hard to defeat. Today, our enemies are relatively easy to defeat, but they often are damnably difficult to find. Hence the need to create timely, actionable — even exquisite — intelligence.

In our efforts, the genius and innovation of American business has been essential. The United States enjoys a number of advantages, such as world-class information-technology companies, a mastery of the challenges and opportunities of big data and the reality that much of the world’s Internet traffic is serviced by U.S. companies. These things have truly made a difference, but sometimes less can be more. Here a little bit of history might be instructive.

In the late 20th century, many viewed the world as a zero-sum game. Any U.S. loss of competitive advantage was our adversary’s gain, and our security, the argument went, was correspondingly weakened as well.

Then, a key technology battleground was a measure of raw computing power known as “MTOPS” — or millions of theoretical operations per second. Successive administrations tried to protect this assumed U.S. security advantage by blocking exports of computers above a certain MTOPS limit to any but our closest allies. The NSA was always an important player in this discussion. After all, in the business of making and breaking codes, advantages in computing power were often decisive. The export barrier was seen as the NSA’s friend.

By the time I became NSA director in the late 1990s, however, the calculation was no longer that simple. We still wanted an MTOPS advantage, of course, but we were fast realizing that our preferred limits were undermining the global competitiveness of the U.S. computer industry — the very industry on which we relied for our success. It was becoming clear that the overall health of that industry was more important than any MTOPS advantage against a specific target country. We still insisted on limits with regard to places such as Cuba and North Korea, but we became far more forgiving elsewhere.

This, of course, had a powerful, positive commercial impact, but the NSA didn’t flip its position for commercial reasons. We did it for security reasons. On balance, this change made us stronger, not weaker, over the long haul, since retarding exports would inevitably retard the technological progress that was both our economic and our security lifeblood.

That early lesson has caused me to continue to challenge arguments that technological protectionism furthers national security. It might, but then again, it could have the opposite effect if it freezes development, alienates allies, feeds distrust or invites the creation of similar barriers abroad. I would recommend these broader considerations to those in the U.S. security enterprise with responsibility for evaluating these trade-offs today.

In a perverse way, as the saying goes, what goes around comes around. Precedents we set will be followed — or exploited — by others in an economic system that becomes more globalized and hence more interdependent by the day. Already others point to U.S. activities to justify their own, often nefarious, efforts. Witness the Chinese trying to create moral and legal equivalency between legitimate U.S. intelligence and their massive theft of intellectual property, or their placement of newly minted restrictions on U.S. IT firms. One wonders what the Russias and Chinas of the world will demand if U.S.-based firms are forbidden to create encryption schemes inaccessible to themselves or the government. Beyond the realm of speculation, the Chinese company Alibaba has announced plans to open a cloud data center in the United States. How will we feel when a Chinese court orders Alibaba to send data on Americans back to China, citing our own behavior as justification?

These are serious, long-term questions requiring serious, strategic answers. Possible second- and third-order effects — such as generating a stampede toward data localization or a Balkanized Internet — need to be considered alongside a still-important calculus based on more transient, tactical advantage.

U.S. intelligence was given a black eye, unfairly for the most part, by l’Affaire Snowden. It has conducted its business honorably, with restraint and oversight — perhaps more than any other country. But that has been little noted.

Today’s issues give the United States a chance to demonstrate to the world that its tough and powerful intelligence services understand what is at stake and intend to join the public discussion on how to balance the truly important privacy and security questions before us and, more important, take meaningful steps to make us stronger.