In the mid-1970s I was a young analyst with the CIA. A friend then serving undercover as the station chief in a European country was gunned down by terrorists. His assassination followed unauthorized disclosure of his CIA identity by people opposed to American intelligence activities. Later spy scandals involving traitors Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen and others showed even more dramatically the devastating consequences of unauthorized disclosure of sensitive intelligence information.
This is the primary reason post-WW II era laws establishing the CIA provided extensive and unique authority for the CIA director to protect “intelligence sources and methods.”
In the 21st century, our country’s foreign intelligence capabilities are focused not against a major, adversary superpower such as the former Soviet Union , but against a variety of state and nonstate actors of more limited but still deadly capabilities. Clearly, however, the need for developing, using and maintaining effective “intelligence sources and methods” is just as critical now as it was in decades past.
Despite the broad and unique powers given the CIA chief, our government travels a very slippery slope when it allows those legal authorities to provide the excuse for covering up potential violations of the law. President Richard Nixon tried it in the 1970s when he and White House operatives employed the CIA as part of its Watergate cover up. The administration of George W. Bush elevated the defense to a whole new level.
Pleading “intelligence sources and methods” as a defense to charges of committing torture or other illegal acts should have no place in either our legal system or in the public policy arena. Using “sources and methods” as a shield to hide allegedly illegal acts abuses and cheapens an important, legitimate authority. This became evident during the Bush-Cheney administration when it refused even to acknowledge what everyone knew — that the National Security Agency was monitoring international phone calls to discover intelligence on al-Qaida operatives.
NSA exists to monitor, decrypt and analyze certain international communications of likely foreign intelligence value. Yet the Bush administration dogmatically refused to even acknowledge the obvious as part of its effort to defend against charges it was engaging in a far-reaching and illegal program of warrantless electronic eavesdropping on our citizens. Claiming that even acknowledging that the NSA engaged in electronic eavesdropping would offer our enemies invaluable knowledge about the “sources” (phone calls) and “methods” (intercepts) of our foreign intelligence capabilities, the Bush administration simply closed the door to any legitimate inquiry of whether it engaged in unlawful surveillance.
Likewise, when evidence surfaced that it had authorized and sanctioned the use of torture as a means of extracting intelligence from captured terrorism suspects, the Bush administration repeatedly refused to discuss or provide information on what precisely it was doing . The excuse for such stonewalling was the old “sources and methods” defense — that to allow any discussion of whether and how government employees tortured suspects would enhance the ability of other potential suspects to withstand application of such techniques in the future.
In other words, the government is telling us (and the world) that, “we won’t discuss how we torture, because this would reduce the effectiveness of torture in the future, and all this therefore is protected against disclosure by the need to protect intelligence sources and methods.”
And now we learn that former Vice President Dick Cheney wants certain of those torture reports and assessments made public after all. Why? To write a book and to show that the use of water-boarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” — even if unlawful — extracted worthwhile intelligence from suspects. For the prior administration at least, what constitutes an intelligence “source” or “method” depends more on the point attempted to be made than it does on a legitimate need to protect the names and lawful actions of undercover operatives.