Accountability vs. Secrecy

Adm. Stansfield Turner is director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The following article is excerpted from a speech delivered November 30 at the Kennedy School of Government's Arco Public Affairs Forum.

There are few public institutions in history that have undergone such thorough public scrutiny as has the intelligence community of our country in the last four years--particularly, of course, the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA is and should be our most secretive government agency. The fact that it has undergone this public scrutiny is really extraordinary; perhaps it is the first time in history that the world has had opened up to it a major intelligence organization in almost all of its aspects.

It has been a traumatic experience, traumatic for those of us in the intelligence community. It has damaged morale: the typical intelligence officer, for instance, feels he is performing a difficult, patriotic task, and when he finds his activities exposed in the public media, he feels sometimes as though the country does not appreciate what he is attempting to do.

The trauma also extends to the fact that it is more difficult to do our job in these conditions. It has damaged our capability to perform the intelligence function authorized by the laws of our country. When we cannot ensure adequate secrecy, foreigners who are willing to work in support of our country, foreign governments whose intelligence services are willing to work with us, are certainly much less willing to do so.

It has been a traumatic period for the American public, also. The American public likes to view the world in idealized terms--and yet the world is not idealized, it is not an open, free society. The world is highly competitive, and more nations than not are closed totalitarian societies. And not all countries, by any means, are willing to inform us in advance of what they are going to do, even if it may be inimical to our national interest. An example of this was the great Soviet wheat steal of 1972, where we simply lacked the statistical data base to drive the proper bargain for our national interest.


So today, if we are going to protect our interests, and our pocketbooks, I believe that we must have good information about what is going on in the rest of the world. I believe it is, in fact, much more important today than ever before that we have such good information.

Thirty years ago, when the CIA was founded, we were the pre-eminent military power in the world. We were a totally independent economic power, and many, if not most of the free nations of the world took their political cues from us. How different is the world today. We are one of several economic powers that are interdependent. We do not dominate the world political scene, as small nations and large are activist and independent. And we are much closer, of course, to military parity.

In these circumstances the leverage of good intelligence, of good information, so that our decision makers can make the best decisions, is much greater than it was in those days of economic, political and military superiority. Yet if we are going to have the better intelligence that we really need today, then we are also going to have to have at least as much secrecy as we have had in the past.

There is, of course, a contradiction between this course of secrecy and the exposure of the last four years. And there is, of course, a great danger, because secrecy can lead to unidentified power. Power in any form can be abused, but unidentified power has a particular potential for abuse. How then can we, are we going to provide for good intelligence for our country, and yet ensure against abuse? On the one hand, we can underreact and simply assume that the relatively limited number of abuses in the past will not be repeated because we are more conscious of the problem today. On the other hand, we can overreact and so attempt to control potential abuses that we handcuff and handicap our intelligence effort out of business.

Either course would be shortsighted, obviously. But what we need is to achieve some balance here. The best way, I think, to achieve that balance is to have a system of accountability.

In the past, public oversight and public accountability was an impossibility--there was simply not enough information shared with the public. Today that's no longer true. The recent revelations, the public inquiries and investigations, the Freedom of Information Act, have all made our intelligence community much more accessible to the public than heretofore. In addition, over the past several years we have made a very definite and deliberate effort to be more open as an intelligence community. We are responding to the press more forthrightly than ever before. Clearly we can't answer every question, but I can assure you that the needle is not stuck in the groove that says no comment.

And we are publishing more and making more analyses and estimates of the intelligence community available to the American public. Obviously we are doing that in those areas that can be downgraded from high security classifications to unclassified. And in that process, I happen to hope that we are also assisting ourselves in protecting that classified information better. The big problem we have is that there is too much classified information, and it therefore does not engender the respect that is due to it. So if we can remove and declassify as much as possible, I hope we will garner that respect for the remaining, highly classified material.

Finally in the public sector, we have of course the free press--a very major assist to the public in its effort to hold the American intelligence community accountable. People like Woodward and Bernstein and others have, of course, performed yeoman service in helping the public keep track of governmental activities. There are, however, potential problems here. When something is made known to the press, it is also made known to a potential enemy. And unlike a court, the press can find you or me guilty through accusation alone.

The power to accuse in the public press, or on the airwaves of our country, is a profound power, and one that is subject to at least as much abuse as any other form of power. And this is partly a problem with respect to intelligence, because, at least I hope, the press never has the full information that we have on any given subject. All of our secrets, I hope, have never leaked. And that means that any member of the media, writing about our activities, must do so from an incomplete evidentiary base. It is a very difficult position for the press, it is a very difficult one for us, as well.

We do, though, have some things in common with the media, and one of them is that absolute necessity that both newsmen and intelligence officers be able to protect their sources. I know how ardently the press hold to that principle in their case; sometimes I am dismayed when they do not recognize it in ours.

Have we today achieved a balance between accountability, and the ability to conduct effective intelligence? I don't know. I think it is too early to tell, and it will be several years before we know whether we are on that right part of the tightrope.

If we do find this right balance, we will truly achieve a revolution in intelligence. For never before in history will any major intelligence activity have been subject to the degree of accountability that we are conducting today. I believe we are on the right track, I believe this can work in our country, but we must remember that it will require some understanding and some forebearance. Forebearance, for instance, against having such detailed laws and regulations that we will find ourselves in a straight-jacket, unable to conduct intelligence activities adequately.

This is not a perfect world, it is not an open world, it is a world in which we must balance our idealism and our realism in international affairs. We must be sure that the check of accountability is there, so that we do not overdo our realism. We must ensure that the check of accountability is made sufficiently flexible, however, that we do not overdo our idealism. As I say to you, we are not there, yet; we are moving strongly in the right direction.

It is an exciting period, an important period in American intelligence. It is a period when we are, in effect, evolving a new, uniquely American model of intelligence: one tailored to the values and the standards of our society, and yet one also designed to ensure that we can remain what we are today--the number one intelligence service in the world.