One of the frustrating things about the ongoing FISA debate is that it’s very difficult to independently check on the assertions made by top intelligence officials about the extent of the powers they need. If Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell says that, without quick action, intelligence capacity will be degraded by 50 percent or two-thirds or 70 percent—or if, indeed, he says all these things on different days—there’s not much to do but take his word for it. On the one hand, of course, most of us are in no position to declare his estimates erroneous. On the other, as the head of the U.S. intelligence community, he is not exactly a disinterested party in the debate over how much authority the intelligence community ought to have.
In the course of some research I was doing for a piece on the history of electronic surveillance, though, I found myself rereading the old Church Committee reports, which among other things discuss how intelligence agencies had, in the past, presented the threat they faced in terms clearly calculated to quell any doubts about the broad power they required. One internal FBI memorandum, for example, explained the fine art of writing reports designed to hint at rampant foreign control of domestic dissident movements without asserting it outright:
You have to spend years in the Bureau really to get the feel of this…. You came down here to ‘efforts’, these ‘colossal efforts’. That was a key word of ours when we are getting around the facts…. You will not find anywhere In the memorandum whether the efforts were successful or unsuccessful…. Here is another one of our words that we used to cover up the facts, ‘efforts to exploit’, that word ‘exploit’. Nowhere will you find in some of these memos the results of the exploitation. [Like] ‘planning to do all possible’, you can search in vain for a statement to the effect that their plans were successful or unsuccessful, partly successful or partly unsuccessful.
When one agent reported that the efforts of communists to take control of the civil rights movement had been a “obvious failure,” one FBI deputy director testified that J. Edgar Hoover quickly made it clear that “we had to change our ways or we would all be out on the street,” prompting a revision that reported “what Hoover wanted to hear.” Hoover even deceived Harry Truman about the extent of surveillance that his predecessor, FDR, had authorized, conning the new president into “renewing” FBI wiretap directives without mentioning that they had previously been
That’s all history, of course, and Hoover was in many ways… let’s say “exceptional.” But DNI McConnell, in his eagerness to prove the value of the Protect America Act, has already made verifiably false statements to Congress about the law’s crucial role in foiling an overseas terror plot. Even if we stipulate that he has the best intentions and no desire to deliberately mislead, he has every reason to reveal information that supports expanded intelligence powers, and little motive to dwell on countervailing evidence. And when you have little fear of being contradicted on a misstatement, it’s easy to be careless.
I say all this because I sometimes get a sense that some folks think you’ve got to be a paranoid America-hating conspiracy theorist if you have any reservations about taking the professional, apolitical DNI McConnell’s every word at face value. (Not, oddly enough, the attitude of most Republicans when the head of the EPA announces that the EPA needs more funding.) But, like every other official in his position—like all of us, really—McConnell sees the facts at his disposal through the lenses of interest and ideology. The only difference is there’s fewer people in a position to correct him if he floats too far from reality.