John McLaughlin, practitioner-in-residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote about the uneasy relationship between Americans and the U.S. intelligence community in a blog entry for Foreign Policy magazine.
McLaughlin, deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004, talks briefly about the NSA's recently revealed electronic surveillance program, PRISM, but focuses more broadly on the discomfort many Americans have with the notion that information is being withheld from them, that secrets are being kept.
"The essential qualities of good intelligence inevitably clash with the underlying values of an open, pluralistic, and free society such as ours," McLaughlin writes. "The effectiveness of our democracy depends on an informed citizenry; effective intelligence depends on withholding and protecting information deemed sensitive. As citizens, Americans cherish their privacy; intelligence officers, subject to frequent background checks, polygraphs, and intrusive financial disclosure, are accustomed to giving it up."
Other nations, McLaughlin notes, have more successfully integrated domestic intelligence services into their cultures. France and England, for example, have services that date to the 16th century. In the U.S., the CIA was created in 1947, and a number of scandals, from Watergate to the recent IRS controversy, have contributed to increasing mistrust of government.
"The controversy over surveillance reveals much about us as a nation and about the cultural divide between the intelligence profession and those with a different focus," McLaughlin concludes. "Where does it go from here? A prediction: The surveillance program will be endlessly and publicly debated, investigated, eviscerated, and digested. In the end, we will all get comfortable with some not-so-very different version of it, perhaps buttressed by a more consensus-based legal foundation. In the process, we will have created a public guidebook to how we do this type of intelligence, and our citizens will be much more educated and sophisticated about our intelligence methods.
"But so will those who want to know all of this even more desperately than we do. There is no having it both ways."Read more from Foreign Policy