The government often does a poor job of defending its most secret intelligence programs when they become public through leaks. There are some obvious and largely structural reasons for this, including that the agencies conducting the programs are not designed for public relations and that defending intelligence programs may require disclosing even more sensitive information than has been leaked. The government also, however, tends to fall into some traps that may be avoidable, and an advantage of robust external oversight may be to help ensure that internal justifications will — if necessary — be persuasive to the public.
The most recent example of the government’s difficulty in publicly defending leaked intelligence programs is the telephony metadata program run by the National Security Agency, and disclosed in documents released by its former employee Edward Snowden to the media. To some extent the government seemed to cripple itself for political reasons in mounting an aggressive defense in this case: the Obama White House took the position that this and other surveillance programs should be re-examined and it held senior officials back from some efforts at public debate.
Many of the problems the government experienced in defending this and related surveillance programs are not unique, though. They resembled those that arose during other recent disclosures in which the government launched an aggressive and unapologetic public relations campaign, such as in the case of the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation program.
That the government, and especially the most secretive intelligence agencies, would be poorly suited and practiced to defend sensitive intelligence programs is unsurprising for several reasons. First, intelligence agencies are culturally oriented toward secrecy and caginess, not toward working with the media and other public outlets. Second, mounting a public defense usually requires officially declassifying some program details or clearing sensitive information for public release. Not only are these processes cumbersome — usually too slow for media cycles, and certainly much slower than the capacities of skeptics or opponents to launch critiques and allegations — but they have a watering-down effect that results in very general statements with scant detail to back them up.
When they do reach out publicly on intelligence issues, government officials usually think they are being much more transparent than they are, or than it seems to those on the receiving end of information. The result is that outreach efforts can backfire: journalists or advocacy group members invited for briefings can leave frustrated and led-on, rather than engaged.