11/08/2013 04:07 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The NSA Problem Is Our Collective Problem, and It Is Time We Owned Up to It

Twenty years ago, an article entitled Secrecy and Intelligence in a Free Society was written by the Center for the Study of Intelligence that explored the challenges of intelligence and secrecy within a free society. The summation of the CIA document could have been penned this week:

Free society needs intelligence. It needs secrecy. But there has been a loss of proportion, a loss of confidence and trust, and a lack of understanding on all sides. These must be overcome because the free society needs to make wise use of the capabilities at its command -- and I include covert capabilities in this. It is high time that a mending took place.

The article was part of a self-study within the CIA which came twenty years after the Church Commission review of intelligence oversight which was formed in the wake of Watergate-era abuses, and twenty years before our current crisis of intelligence. The recurring need to review the conduct of intelligence activities speaks to the continuing tension surrounding the role of intelligence and secrecy within our government and society.

Yet the fundamental expectations of Americans are that the nation's intelligence apparatus will continue to be employed effectively to keep Americans safe, whatever scorn and derision may be cast upon those agencies from time to time for whatever abuses of power may occur. This was demonstrated dramatically with the criticism directed toward intelligence services for failing to disrupt the plans of the Tsarnaev brothers whose bombs in Boston were constructed from cookware that can be purchased at and explosive material readily obtainable from fireworks stores and gun shops in many states.

It has been remarkable to me in recent days to encounter three vastly different reactions to the events and testimony surrounding the National Security Agency disclosures of the range of its electronic eavesdropping activities.

For his part, NSA Director James Clapper has seen little if anything to apologize for in the conduct of the NSA surveillance programs. He has not been insensitive to criticism, but rather confronted clearly the notion that gathering intelligence is the central charge of the NSA and serves an essential purpose: "Leadership intentions is kind of a basic tenet of what we collect and analyze."

The dilemma of intelligence and the perspective of the intelligence operative was dramatically presented in the movie Three Days of the Condor, which presents the dilemma of intelligence gathering impinging on liberty in a free society. At the end of the movie, Robert Redford's character has taken the stance of Edward Snowden, and delivered information on CIA intelligence gathering methods to the New York Times, convinced of the outrage that will ensue. Redford's CIA counterpart challenges his idealistic belief that Americans would readily sacrifice their comfort for their idealism and principles:

"Ask them [the American People] when they're running out [of oil]. When it's cold at home and the engines stop and people who aren't used to hunger ... go hungry! They won't want us to ask [for their permission] ... They'll want us to get it for them."

In contrast to James Clapper's sanguine stance, the NSA's tapping of Angela Merkel's phone sparked the demand by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein that the NSA cease the "collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies -- including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany." Yet, rhetoric aside, Feinstein's stance, particularly as Senate Intelligence Committee Chair, is untenable. For example, Mexico is certainly an ally, but it is also a country rife with the corruption of public officials. It would be irresponsible for our intelligence services not to assess the extent to which the president of Mexico is being influenced by -- to say nothing of personally corrupted by -- the leaders of the drug cartels.

It is unarguable, along the same vein, that Saudi Arabia -- widely proclaimed to be one of our strongest allies -- is responsible for the funding of radical Islamic groups, including many no doubt who are at war with us. Certainly Senator Feinstein is not suggesting that the U.S. intelligence services -- particularly the least invasive electronic intelligence programs of the NSA -- cease the use of all means available to us to understand the lay of the land in the volatile and evolving Middle East. Or perhaps her stance is that it is OK to surveil the leaders of Arab or Muslim states with whom we are allied, but not European states. And what about Israel, who has famously spied on us? Does our president not want the best possible intelligence to divine which of Benjamin Netanyahu's words are -- like Feinstein's -- rhetoric to appease a domestic audience and which mark true lines in the sand?

In contrast to Senator Feinstein, whose public comments certainly cannot reflect her stance in the closed confines of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I was surprised this week by the comments of a friend at Google. He suggested that people within Google are just beginning to recover from the realization that the federal government has been using its resources to monitor private Internet communications.

My friend explained the shock on the part of the tech community by suggesting that it would have taken a massive amount of computing power to hack into the encrypted communications backbone, unless it had a backdoor. He readily accepted the notion that the NSA had the computing muscle to do it, and reluctantly acknowledged that as an infrastructure funded early on with military research money, it was not inconceivable that there were backdoors into the system. Backdoors, as one hacker scolded another in the movie WarGames 30 years ago, are not secret.

My friend commented that the disdain within the tech community for government was validated by the fiasco, and no doubt that disdain contributed to the shock of learning that the same government that could not launch an effective e-commerce website after three years of planning had nonetheless successfully hacked into areas of the Internet infrastructure presumed to be unassailable. For my friend and his colleagues at Google, it has been a rude awakening. Like the early stages of grief, it is not apparent that people in the tech world have get fathomed the implications of their new understanding of the world around them.

The NSA issue revolves around the nature of secrets, and the security infrastructure that undergirds a free society. The NSA is charged with giving the president of the United States the best possible intelligence, and given that charge it is unlikely to foreswear an effective means of gathering intelligence, absent a clear and compelling -- to say nothing of urgent -- rationale.

The NSA surveillance activities constitute violations of privacy, not the murder or suborning of foreign leaders, after all. If it meant that the NSA was able to advice President Obama that it believed that Angela Merkel would ultimately support keeping Greece in the Euro, that was worthwhile intelligence that contributed to global economic stability at a fragile time. If it meant that the NSA has been able to suggest that Vladimir Putin would support a middle ground on Syria, or to suggest how far Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is inclined to support Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, so much the better. Perhaps it is even useful if those adversaries are not sure how much we know.

At the end of the day, NSA Director James Clapper's testimony rang true. He appeared to be neither lying nor disingenuous. And for my friend at Google, this has been an awakening. Alone among the three, Senator Feinstein's remarks evinced dissembling and calculating disingenuousness. The film analogy for her, of course, is Claude Raines, in Casablanca. Senator Feinstein, Chair of the United States Senate Intelligence Committee was shocked, shocked to hear what the National Security Agency was doing on behalf of the American people.

The senator cannot have it both ways. If it is true that she is shocked, and that she believes that the NSA should not be gathering the best intelligence it can about the president of Mexico, then she should resign her position, because it suggests that she is not serious about defending the interests of the nation she is sworn to serve. If, on the other hand, she is not really shocked, but understands that there is a delicate balance -- as the CIA study above noted -- in managing the role of intelligence services in a free society, then she owes us not her feigned outrage, but her leadership in helping Americans understand that balance.

Through his revelations, Edward Snowden is forcing us to recognize what our intelligence services do on our behalf. This is not a movie with clearly defined good and evil characters, it is the real world and the answers are not simple. Perhaps it is time that we confront it honestly rather than just recoil in horror or feigned outrage. It is our government: We, the people. It is time we owned it and learned how to have a real discussion about the very real issues and choices surrounding secrecy and intelligence in a free society.