05/15/2008 12:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Secret Question Obama and McCain Will Never Hear

I've watched a number of the debates now, both Democratic and Republican. As with so many things, the quality has gone down as the quantity has gone up. The notion of a real debate taking place on national television seems about as realistic as the prospect of all of the lobbyists in Washington voluntarily packing their bags and leaving for jobs as high school teachers. Yet the role of the debates is crucial in the election cycle, and so given their decrepit state, I will ask my question for Barack Obama and John McCain to readers here, knowing that it will most likely never make it to the stage.

My question touches on matters of foreign policy, Congressional budgets, Presidential power, Constitutional law, and common sense. In short, I want to know: what are we going to do about intelligence?

When I say "intelligence," I'm not talking about one of my favorite topics, education, though it's actually quite related because these days the intelligence community is one of the last places that most high-achieving college graduates want to work. Rather, what I'm asking is what we as a country are going to do about the CIA, the NSA, and the fifteen or so other intelligence agencies that are tasked with the job of keeping our government apprised of what's going on in the world. In short, they're not working.

They are, of course, working, in a literal sense. They work around the clock, monitoring international (and sometimes, contrary to their charters, domestic) telephone conversations, gathering gossip on the ground in far-flung nations most Americans have never heard of, and preparing reports that go to the White House, the Pentagon, and various other high offices of government. Yet based on the agencies' collective records predicting events in Iraq, the information they compile, on which taxpayers blindly spend billions upon billions of dollars, is timely and correct only on the rarest of occasions.

Yes, it's true--I did just read Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA--and the picture it painted was not comforting. I've also read various books about the NSA and the Israeli intelligence apparatus. I mention these sources not to demonstrate that I am some sort of expert on intelligence services--for that is definitely not the case--but that I am at the very least an engaged citizen who wants to know why his tax dollars are being flushed down the drain in the name of national security.

Most of us are getting a $600 tax rebate this year, but if we were to divvy up every dollar spent obtaining (or manufacturing) faulty intelligence in the past decade, let alone since the formation of the agencies after World War II, the rebate would be much, much larger. Now that so many documents detailing the follies of our supposedly elite spying services have been declassified, there's no excuse for continuing to support an expensive, broken system. We can no longer claim to be ignorant of the ways in which intelligence works.

Moreover, it's not just a broken system that is sitting in the corner of government and rotting away quietly. However well-intentioned, a terrifying conflation between the covert gathering of facts and the covert imposition of democracy has gotten this country into two major wars (Vietnam and Iraq) and several serious battles with negative long-term consequences (Iran, Panama, Angola, etc.). Far too many people have died for one theoretical cause or another dreamt up by a few officials over a Georgetown kitchen table. A veil of secrecy has served as cover for massive incompetence--ironic, because if there's anything that intelligence agencies should have learned from the Soviet Union in the Cold War, it is that excessive secrecy is a sure tell for an acute weakness somewhere. Our own weaknesses in intelligence have been too plentiful to count.

Essentially, the problem is that at age twenty-five, I am worried that I will indirectly spend the rest of my life doing my part to clean up (or defend myself from) the mess that America has made in the world. Our nation has fewer allies than ever before, and with a new President coming into office in 2009 (whoever that may be), there will be people in the intelligence community who believe that the new executive is inexperienced at handling issues of clandestine policy. In the past, a President's perceived ignorance regarding such matters usually meant that the agencies felt free to make up their own policies in foreign lands to defend American interests, and they often did, imposing their will at the point of a gun.

Intelligence activities do not have to be violent by definition. There is a broad range, from merely listening in order to assemble the pieces of a puzzle behind the scenes, to spreading information (better known as propaganda), to dropping weapons out of helicopters, to full-scale invasions. Americans are more aware of these options now than they have been in a long time, having just witnessed the effects of the last one on their sons and daughters on the front lines, not to mention the effect on the price of oil. The time has come for us all to actually talk about what to do next. Are all of these activities in the country's best interest? Only some of them? Why or why not?

When I vote for a presidential candidate this November, I want to know what is on the agenda for these agencies. Are they going to be reformed? Rolled back? Demolished entirely? Consolidated? Split apart? Increasingly outsourced to the private sector? (Is that even possible given the current levels of outsourcing?) Perhaps I haven't looked hard enough at the campaign web sites, but when it comes to Barack Obama's and John McCain's thoughts on these agencies, I have absolutely no idea what they have in mind. We've had many prior elections without seriously discussing the proper role of intelligence in our government. It hasn't worked out well. We owe it to ourselves, the employees of these agencies, and the world at large to start doing things differently.

Aaron Greenspan is the author of the forthcoming Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era.