Let’s Leave “Crisis” and “Emergency” For the Real Thing

Samantha Vinograd, who served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council and as deputy U.S. Treasury attaché to Iraq during the Bush Administration, has recently written two feverish posts, deploying the words “crisis” and “emergency” to imply that the United States is in jeopardy because of recent events involving the intelligence community. I disagree with her analysis, and recommend that everyone take a deep breath and dispassionately examine the facts and context. While Vinograd does identify issues of concern (the fundamentals of which are not especially new), they are also not signs that an intelligence meltdown is about to engulf us.

In her first post, Vinograd claims that we are facing a “crisis of intelligence” because President Donald Trump approved the release of the four-page Nunes memo, which she believes contained information damaging to the Intelligence Community and about which the FBI had “grave concerns.” (And we now know that the Democrats want to release a memo more than twice as long, but the Justice Department and the FBI have expressed concerns that it could also compromise intelligence sources and methods.)

Essentially, Vinograd contends that the release of the material jeopardizes relations with allied intelligence agencies to the point where they may no longer share the same level of intelligence with the United States.

Yes, clearly allied intelligence sharing is quite helpful to the U.S., but even if the Republican memo or the Democratic memo (or both) would, in fact, compromise sensitive intelligence in some way – and I don’t know that is the case – there is no evidence that friendly intelligence agencies would so drastically reduce their cooperation with their American counterparts. In fact, experience suggests it would have little or no impact.

Recall, for example, the intelligence catastrophes during the Obama administration, beginning with the Edward Snowden leaks. Although former Attorney General Eric Holder said Snowden “performed a public service” because of the debate the leak generated, the fact is Snowden revealed as many as 1.7 million highly-classified documents. Holder has also acknowledged the damage Snowden has caused to American security interests, describing the leaks as “inappropriate and illegal.”

Still, Holder’s view that Snowden’s leaks had some benefit to the public debate about government surveillance is at odds with that of the military. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told Congress in 2014 that:

The vast majority of the documents that Snowden – Mr. Snowden – exfiltrated from our highest levels of security, the vast majority had nothing to do with exposing government oversight of domestic activities…[t]he vast majority of those were related to our military capabilities, operations, tactics, techniques and procedures. (Italics added.)

Dempsey added that he believed it “could cost billions of dollars to overcome the loss of security that has been imposed on us.” And, of course, the Snowden affair wasn’t the only gargantuan compromise of sensitive material during the Obama years. Who can forget the hack of the Office of Personnel Management database which compromised 22 million people? (Full disclosure: Both my wife and I were victims.)

So, if all that rather egregious history of extensive compromise of classified and sensitive material didn’t halt intelligence sharing among allies, can anyone really say that U.S. partners would curtail working with the U.S. simply because the Republicans and (likely) the Democrats release another couple of pages about the circumstances surrounding the surveillance application for Carter Page, the former Trump campaign adviser?

For very pragmatic reasons of self-interest, U.S. allies are not going to do that. Let’s keep in mind what then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said when the same sort of apprehensions about intelligence cooperation were being aired in the aftermath of the Snowden disclosures:

Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think — I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. Many governments — some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation. (Emphasis added).

The reality is that no ally has the vast intelligence capabilities of the U.S., especially with respect to technical capabilities. From time to time partners may put a temporary hold on its cooperation (Canada did so for a short time during the Obama administration), but none would want to permanently jeopardize the access it might have to the trove of U.S.-provided data. That’s because none could afford to try to replicate it. The U.S. intelligence system, however, has the ability to be, if necessary, autarkic. It really is that simple.

Savvy intelligence practitioners know this. Just a week ago the French detailed to Defense News their intelligence relationship with U.S. by saying that they are “regularly attending meetings in the United States’ capital to share information with the Five Eyes intelligence group, reflecting a capability to gather and exchange high-value data.” The French may not yet be the “Sixth Eye” of the elite intelligence-sharing club, but nothing indicates that they are hesitating about the expansion of its relationship with the U.S.

In short, even if we agree that the ‘battle of memos’ is undesirable from an intelligence perspective (and I think it is), to call the situation a “crisis” is overwrought.

In her second post, Vinograd says she fears we have an intelligence “emergency” because reportedly “30-40 White House officials and political appointees are operating with interim [security] clearances.” (For context, there are about 377 people working on Trump’s White House staff versus the 472 Obama had).

There too, the full story is rather different. We can all agree that in a perfect world, no one would have access to sensitive material – not to mention the person of the president – absent a full background investigation and permanent clearance that supports such access. But we live in an imperfect world, particularly when a president and a significant number of the people he wants in his administration have no previous experience as politicos and are unfamiliar with the process.

Nevertheless, as the AP reports, interim clearances are “routine” – and can be the result of the practical problems created by a backlog of 700,000 security reviews that, for the most part, predates Trump. Is it an “emergency”? The AP quotes Dan Payne, director of the U.S. Defense Security Service, who says the interim clearances can be “risky” but they “are necessary so that government business is not halted.”

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats agreed this week that interim clearances can be necessary in a new administration, but added that “if you do that, it has to be a specific interim with controlled access and limited access, and that has to be clear right from the beginning… You can’t just say an interim allows me to do anything.” No one should disagree with that.

I also agree with him, however, that the question is “how can we do [clearances] in a way that doesn’t leave us with hundreds of thousands waiting to be looked at and certified, with key slots open in various agencies?” That’s a tough one as we need to avoid too hastily undertaking a “fix” to a very complex problem. We don’t want a “solution” that is worse than the problem it intended to remedy.

Here’s an example of what concerns me: In calling for “revolutionary change” in the security clearance system, Coats said told the AP:

What’s needed is a process that takes advantage of new technologies and information on social media to provide “early awareness of individuals.” He said such an approach would be faster and more effective than an investigation “having to go to 19 different places to talk to people, neighbors and school classmates and so forth.”

Maybe so. But before we allow government to use bots to compile, as a matter of course, information from social media about millions of Americans with security clearances in this country, let’s take a pause and consider the proverbial unintended consequences. How high a bar do we want to set, and how much reliance do we want to place on whatever a social media site might say about someone in determining, in essence, their future? Careers and, really, lives are at stake.

In any event, reliance on interim clearances isn’t a Trump-unique problem. Last December, Government Executive, citing a Government Accountability Office report, headlined instructively that the “Security Clearance Backlog Has Been a Decade in the Making.” It also reported that during the last year of the Obama administration (2016), there was a “459 day average wait time for a top secret security clearance.”

Considering that Trump has been in office less than 400 days, I am not as surprised as Vinograd that around 10 percent of those who work in the White House might still have interim clearances. That said, the allegations in the Rob Porter and Sebastian Gorka cases are certainly troubling and seem to have merited far quicker action, but the grim reality is that any system of security clearances will inevitably be imperfect. Some may see the Obama administration’s grant of Michael Flynn’s security clearance to be evidence of that truth. Fortunately, there has been no report about which I am aware of an actual compromise of classified material. I’ll wager that the worst leaks we’ve seen in recent years came not from people with interim clearances, but permanent ones.

Regardless, not every endemic problem, even a serious one, is productively touted as an “emergency” simply because there is a new occupant of the White House, and one who inherited a problematic system that plagued his predecessor.

To reiterate, Vinograd has commendably raised significant issues worthy of serious examination, but let’s try to do that analysis in a deliberative and reasoned way that fully ventilates the issue. Most importantly, let’s not unnecessarily add alarming hyperbole to our already hyper-politicized and tumultuous dialogue. Sadly, I think we’ll know when a true “crisis” or “emergency” is upon us, and it won’t be about these matters.

 

Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

 

About the Author(s)

Charles J. Dunlap, Jr.

Professor of the Practice of Law and Executive Director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke Law School He retired from the Air Force in 2010 as a Major General.