President Donald Trump recently removed Michael Atkinson from the position of Inspector General of the Intelligence Community (IC). I worked closely with Michael when I was the Civil Liberties Protection Officer for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Protecting civil liberties is very much a team effort, and I could not have asked for stronger partners than the inspectors general with whom I worked. They root out fraud, waste, and abuse, investigate wrongdoing, and ensure that employees can report misconduct without fear of retaliation. Their job is not to tell leaders what they want to hear; it is to ensure that those in power hear the truth. None took his job more seriously than Michael Atkinson.
If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, it is the enduring importance of truth. We must base our actions on what we believe to be true about how this virus spreads, who is most vulnerable, and what we must do to limit the risk to ourselves and those around us. Truth is literally a matter of life and death.
This is not a novel concept for those of us in the IC. Inscribed on the wall when you enter CIA’s headquarters is this biblical inscription: “And Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free.” After nearly 20 years in the IC, I know that the inscription is no mere inspirational saying. It reflects a core value at the heart of the intelligence profession. As indeed it must. The security of the American people and that of our allies depends on intelligence professionals seeking the truth and providing it to the nation’s leaders.
Today, public health professionals are charged with no less grave a responsibility. They must obtain the best information available about this disease, draw insights based on their expertise and experience, and inform our leaders so that they can make prudent decisions for the benefit of us all.
Promoting an environment that supports truth-telling is, therefore, vital. In the IC, we consider it part of our ethos to “speak truth to power.” This core value is enshrined in the Principles of Professional Ethics for the Intelligence Community, which I helped develop in 2012 under the leadership of DNI James Clapper: “We seek the truth; speak truth to power; and obtain, analyze and provide intelligence objectively.” DNI Clapper’s successor, Dan Coats, echoed that principle when he repeatedly emphasized that as intelligence professionals, “we seek and speak the truth.”
Hearing uncomfortable truths can provoke negative reactions, and retaliation is always a risk. That’s why institutional protections are so important, like those embodied in the position of inspector general. It is through inspectors general that employees in the IC must raise their concerns for transmission to Congress, and it is through them that whistleblower protections against retaliation are enforced.
Having the fortitude to speak unpopular truths is part of what it means to be an intelligence professional. But it’s not a one-way street. Leaders and policymakers have a corresponding obligation to support those who speak the truth, even if they disagree with what they are being told. Only then, can we foster the truth-telling environment that we need to thrive as a country.
Speaking truth to power was baked into my job description as Civil Liberties Protection Officer. I recall a moment early in my tenure, when I was sitting along the wall of a meeting of senior leaders, chaired by the DNI at the time. During the meeting, he misstated a cybersecurity initiative in a way that implicated basic privacy protections. The room fell silent as people processed what he said. Into the silence, I spoke up from the back to correct the error. The DNI paused, accepted the correction, made sure all understood what I had said, and the discussion proceeded. It was an awkward moment, but not a professionally risky one. Indeed, the DNI later thanked me, and like all DNI’s I have served, he encouraged me to always speak truth to power.
Looking back on it now, I can only wonder what my career would have been like—and what the IC would be like—if intelligence leaders punished those who disagreed with them or pointed out when they were wrong. It would not be a place for inscriptions about knowing—and being set free by—the truth.
It is not enough for a professional to have the courage to speak up. Senior leaders must support those who speak the truth even when it runs counter to their preferences or agendas.
I have been privileged to serve with intelligence professionals, like Atkinson, who uphold our ethical principles and who do not shy from speaking truth to power. It is vital that the nation’s institutions support the ability of all government professionals to do so.
When they speak the truth, they are doing the jobs the nation wants—and needs—them to do.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or the U.S. government.
Image: Inspector General of the Intelligence Community Michael Atkinson arrives for a closed-door hearing before the House Intelligence Committee in Washington, DC, on October 4, 2019. Photo by Eric BARADAT / AFP via Getty Images