It’s often difficult to have serious discussions about the American intelligence services because a good deal of what they do must, by definition, be kept secret. Hollywood and a thousand bad thriller writers have stepped in to fill the gap somewhat, but the results are often more entertaining than helpful when it comes to problems like the NSA disclosures of Edward Snowden.
A fair amount of intelligence history though, often far more interesting than the fictional variety, has been declassified. This means that although we cannot know the salient details of today’s secret operations, we can know those of decades past and then indirectly decide whether those of today are worth it or not.
In 1955, the CIA began a program known by the bland codename of HT/LINGUAL. This operation was in many ways the forerunner to today’s NSA scandals. Its aim was to read mail going to the Soviet Union as a way of catching Russian agents inside of America passing secrets via letters.
It was thought that there was a good chance of success precisely because of the blatant illegality of it all. After all, if it was believed that the government couldn’t read their mail wouldn’t spies be more inclined to put something incriminating in their letters?
In fact, the program was a gigantic failure. Although eventually over 200,000 letters were opened and read, little actionable intelligence was ever found. The problem was that no Russian handler would ever counsel their American agents to trust the seal of the envelope as adequate protection from prying eyes. Being raised in a society where law is always subordinate to the needs of the Party has a tendency to erode one’s trust in legalism.
David Martin, from whose excellent book “Wilderness of Mirrors” I draw this account, points out that the reason HT/LINGUAL failed is that it played right to the CIA’s major disadvantage in its covert war against the KGB. The CIA was and remains an agency designed for the protection of democratic values, albeit often by undemocratic means.
There is, however, a line it cannot cross. A democracy can have a clandestine service. It cannot have a secret police.
The CIA could not out the KGB. The Russian spies would always have the advantage when it came to illegal behavior such as reading mail because they never had to deal with elections or courts or any of those pesky aspects of a free society. The CIA theoretically could have matched them in this, but then what sort of free society would they have been defending?
This long-forgotten letter opening program throws into sharp contrast the central dilemma of intelligence in a democracy in a way that I think is helpful to evaluating the NSA today.
Every action taken on American soil by any one of our agencies is at some level chipping away at the freedoms we enjoy as citizens. Yet unilateral intelligence disarmament would be even worse as it would cede the field to groups with even less respect for democratic ideals, from terrorist cells to the still very functional KGB (which, rebranding aside, has changed little since 1991).
A good intelligence operation, then, should do more to harm the enemies of democracy than democracy itself. HT/LINGUAL was a failure because the results were hardly worth the massive privacy violations they required. In the end, the proper role of the NSA and wiretapping will come down to the very same question.