Even some of those who have supported the release of the Senate intelligence committee’s torture report agree that it could damage U.S. interests abroad. And opponents of the report are sure that, in Sen. Ted Cruz’s words, it “will endanger lives, drive away our allies” and “undermine” national security. But will it really?
Cruz’s argument is similar to what we heard often during the Cold War. The United States was at a disadvantage compared with the Soviet Union, it was said, because it had to operate with its hands tied behind its back, with congressional interference, media exposure and all the other trappings of a democracy. Moscow, on the other hand, could act speedily, effectively, lethally and in secret. Even a dove like George Kennan would lament that conducting foreign policy in a large, messy democracy was a handicap.
In fact, the Soviet Union pursued an utterly disastrous foreign policy. It so brutally suppressed its “allies” that, by the 1980s, it was flanked by a group of countries in Eastern Europe that had become deeply hostile. It pursued an arms race with the United States that consumed by some estimates 10 percent to nearly 20 percent of its gross domestic product. It invaded Afghanistan and bled itself dry in a war it could not admit it had lost.
All these flaws were a product of a closed system with no checks and balances. The Kremlin and the KGB had complete freedom of maneuver, no oversight, no requirement to ever reveal any operations and no media that reported on them. The result was that errors persisted and ultimately broke the back of the entire enterprise.
The United States made its share of mistakes during the Cold War. But because of a democratic system of contestation, transparency, checks and balances, many of them were exposed early. New administrations could shift policy without losing face. Course correction was routine. Despite the nostalgia that many mandarins have for an old Metternichian model, it is the big, raucous, contentious democracies — Britain and the United States — that have prevailed in the world, not Nazi Germany, imperial Japan or the Soviet Union.
“A case can be made . . . that secrecy is for losers,” the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in his 1998 book on the subject, adding, “Openness is now a singular, and singularly American, advantage.” Closed systems work badly. Open systems have the great advantage of getting feedback — criticism, commentary, audits, reports. The CIA claims that its programs after 9/11 worked very well and suggests that the best judge of this should be itself. The Senate report provides an alternative view with substantial evidence and argumentation. This debate will make the CIA better, not worse. And the revelations of the National Security Agency’s vast espionage will force it to refine its snooping to programs that are effective and justifiable.
What organization has ever benefited from being able to be the sole judge of its own performance? Democratic accountability is almost like a market test for government agencies. It forces an outside check that is otherwise very difficult to come by.
The touchstone example of congressional revelations that are said to have damaged U.S. foreign policy is the Church Committee. It became an article of faith for many that the committee, set up in 1975 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, destroyed the CIA and weakened America. But what were its revelations? That the CIA had attempted to assassinate a series of leaders across the Third World, often in ham-fisted and botched operations that provoked a nationalist backlash for decades. That it covered up its mistakes. That it had spied on American citizens.
The reforms of the era included a ban on assassinations, congressional and judicial oversight of intelligence agencies, the requirement that the president formally approve a covert action (to create accountability), and a term limit for the director of the FBI (so that no individual could amass and abuse power in the manner that J. Edgar Hoover had for four decades). It is a measure of how sensible these reforms are that they are today utterly uncontested.
As for the broader consequences, a few years after the Church Committee, the revolt in Afghanistan, dissent in Eastern Europe and dysfunction in the Soviet Union — all assisted by America’s intelligence agencies — caused the unraveling of the Soviet empire. Keep that in mind when you hear the same kinds of warnings today.