Courtesy Reuters

An Intelligence Downgrade

By Michael Guerrero

Jane Harman (“Disrupting the Intelligence Community,” March/April 2015) argues that the U.S. intelligence agencies should focus on their respective strengths: covert paramilitary action for the CIA and cryptography and cyberwarfare for the National Security Agency (NSA). Harman’s remarks on the importance of open-source and social media intelligence are valid, and she rightly argues that covert CIA drone strikes have effectively disrupted terrorists groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. But this is where the soundness of her assessment ends.

Harman’s claim that the CIA's edge lies in covert action rather than human intelligence because the agency spends more money on the former is suspect. Covert operations may simply be inherently costlier, and their inflated budget may be a symptom of the CIA’s shift in focus after 9/11, rather than an indication of the agency’s expertise. More troubling, the CIA’s history is replete with covert operations of dubious merit: the Iranian coup of 1953, the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and the Iran-contra affair in the mid-1980s, to name a few. Moreover, CIA covert operations have engendered widespread animosity among Muslims across the Middle East. And if the CIA were to forsake its traditional human intelligence mission for an exclusively covert one, it is not clear that another intelligence body could fill the resulting need for strategic intelligence.

Harman’s assessment of the NSA also raises questions. Her assertion that the NSA’s data collection was “carefully circumscribed and reviewed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court” is optimistic. The FISC rejected only 11 of the nearly 34,000 surveillance applications made by the government between 1979 and 2012—hardly a sign of careful review. And Harman’s suggestion that the NSA should end programs with the potential to upset U.S. technology companies or civil liberties groups is equally faulty. Rather than “carry a high political cost,” as Harman argues, any attempts by the NSA to penetrate technology companies’ defenses may only further desensitize domestic and foreign audiences to government surveillance.

MICHAEL GUERRERO, Major, U.S. Air Force 

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