There was no shortage of outrage on Capitol Hill this week when CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed a select group of Senators on her agency’s reported judgement that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “probably” ordered the killing of U.S. resident and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. Those authorized to receive the briefing seemed appalled at what they learned about the brutal murder.
Some of those not invited to the session were also up-in-arms, arguing that more, if not all, lawmakers should have an opportunity to hear the CIA’s assessment. Senator Rand Paul went so far as to blame the so-called “deep state” for shielding the report’s findings from all but a handful of Senators.
What may be lost in Paul’s conspiratorial spouting is that, on the substance, he’s right. It’s a no-brainer that lawmakers should have access to the assessment. After all, both the House and the Senate have been—and, no doubt, will again be—called upon to vote on sanctions against Saudi Arabia, U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, arm sales to the Kingdom, among other bilateral issues between Washington and Riyadh. Our lawmakers mustn’t be forced to fly blind.
Yet, this Washington-focused squabble misses the more important question: whether the American public should be able to review the broad strokes of this analysis. As former national security officials who faced some of these same questions during the Obama administration, we believe—based on historical precedent and the realities of this unique moment—they should.
First, the history. Successive American Presidents have taken seriously their dual commitment to protect intelligence sources and methods, while also being transparent with the American people. Those two objectives can—and often do—clash when our Intelligence Community arrives at a classified judgement that has profound implications for our national security and public discourse.
During the presidency of George W. Bush, for example, the Intelligence Community in 2007 arrived at a conclusion that startled even senior administration officials: they judged with high confidence that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program years prior. This judgement flew in the face of public statements from President Bush and his lieutenants, who had spent years warning the world of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Rather than suppress the judgement, however, President Bush took the opposite approach, ordering the production of an unclassified version of the report.
Similarly, President Obama also encountered this dilemma. Obama’s most renowned declassification order was his last: the production of an unclassified report on Putin’s assault on our democracy. Obama similarly ordered the publication of other key intelligence conclusions, including Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s responsibility for a 2013 chemical weapons attack against his own people and and data on the number of non-combatant casualties killed in U.S. counterterrorism operations. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, President Obama, against the wishes of the royal family, acquiesced to mounting public and Congressional pressure by declassifying the so-called “28 pages,” an addendum to a Congressional report that detailed allegations of Saudi officials’ financial backing for the 9/11 hijackers.
In none of these instances was the President’s hand forced. In some cases, the decision to declassify these findings conveyed geopolitical advantages, including, for example, leverage to act against the Syrian strongman on the world stage. In other cases, however, there was no such advantage; the President merely recognized a matter of public interest. The goal was to fulfill a commitment to the American public’s right to transparency in matters of profound import, consistent with the protection of sensitive sources and methods, and that’s almost always achievable. History shows that the Intelligence Community can distill even highly classified assessments into unclassified summaries that inform public debate.
All of which brings us back to the present. If public accounts are accurate, the CIA has concluded that the Trump administration’s closest Middle Eastern partner more than likely ordered the brutal killing of a prominent U.S. resident in a diplomatic facility in a NATO country. That alone in our minds justifies the release of an unclassified version.
What compounds this case is that the United States continues to support Saudi Arabia’s devastating assault on Yemen, where 14 million people are at risk of famine in the coming weeks. In evaluating whether U.S. support for that conflict should continue — and we have argued it should not — it stands to reason that the American people have every right to know the nature of the young ruler who has dragged us into this conflict.
Declassification may well convey other advantages. It could, for example, help staunch a series of recent leaks of apparently sensitive details that have the potential to do real harm to our intelligence collection capabilities. We do not condone such unauthorized disclosures, but they strike us as motivated from frustration with the inaccurate statements from the President and his lieutenants on a matter of profound public interest. Additionally, a public version of the assessment would provide a primary source document for both posterity and the current moment. All but our fellow citizens with the highest security clearances are presently relegated to hearing one story from anonymous leakers who may have agenda and another from senior administration officials who certainly have an agenda. An official document carrying the imprimatur of the Intelligence Community would, at the very least, provide a single set of facts on which opinions and policy positions could then be based.
All that said, we are not optimistic that such a declassified assessment will see the light of day anytime soon. After all, the authority to declassify rests with the President. But so too does the responsibility to be forthright with the American people, as Trump’s predecessors have demonstrated. At present, our best hope for transparency may derive from the incoming House of Representatives, whose Democratic-controlled committees will wield the power of the gavel—and the subpoena—for the first time during this administration.
Democracy may die in darkness, but excessive secrecy has the potential to put it on life support.
Photo credit: CIA Director Gina Haspel attends a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room at the White House October 17, 2018 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)