The fallout from the release of classified documents by Edward J. Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, continues. Recent revelations that the N.S.A. listened to cellphone calls of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany have generated widespread debate and outrage. But this solitary focus may miss the deeper issue: the vast increase in the reach of U.S. intelligence operations, which too often lack a stringent moral grounding and an appropriate balance between security and liberty. Though U.S. citizens sometimes seem content to turn a blind eye to what the government does in their name, this trend warrants attention and concern.
Our country’s participation in the Second World War, and then the cold war, resulted in an enormous intelligence apparatus of lasting consequence. The National Security Act of 1947 pulled together existing agencies and established the Central Intelligence Agency. A year later, President Harry S. Truman expanded its mission to include covert operations shielded by plausible deniability. He also established the N.S.A. in 1952 to continue code-breaking work in the postwar era. These intelligence organizations, by their very nature, operate beyond public scrutiny—allowing them to expand with minimal public debate.
In this issue of America, James W. Douglass writes that in the wake of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, President John F. Kennedy said he wanted “to splinter the C.I.A. in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” No such dissolution of the agency’s power has taken place. Instead there has been an explosion in the size and scope of U.S. intelligence organizations following Sept. 11, 2001. We know little about the cost of these operations, but thanks to a two-year investigation by The Washington Post published in 2010, we know there are over 3,000 government organizations and private companies involved in national security and intelligence programs. An estimated 854,000 people hold top-secret security clearances.
We now know that the N.S.A. not only decodes foreign intelligence and protects American secrets, but spies without warrants on Americans at home and listens to tens of millions of calls abroad, including those of 35 world leaders. The C.I.A., far beyond its original mandate, operated secret prisons for terrorism suspects, employed methods of interrogation that amounted to torture and continues to execute not-so-secret drone strikes in countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
When President Obama came into office, he rightly changed course by issuing executive orders that closed C.I.A. prisons and prohibited enhanced interrogation techniques. Mr. Obama even ordered the release of the then-classified C.I.A. “torture memos”—a courageous decision that resulted in the expected yet unfounded criticism that the president was showing weakness on national security.
Even greater courage is needed to take up the unfinished business of reining in U.S. intelligence agencies. C.I.A. Director John O. Brennan has said the agency “should not be doing traditional military activities and operations.” This should become policy, not just a promise. White House officials have signaled a “preference” for Pentagon oversight of drone strikes, but a full transition from the C.I.A. has not yet taken place. Only the Department of Defense should carry out U.S. military operations, and those should be in conformity with international humanitarian law and subject to public scrutiny. The resources of the C.I.A. should be directed toward its traditional mission of intelligence collection and analysis.
Last month the N.S.A. announced a plan to hire a civil liberties and privacy officer, and bipartisan legislation under consideration in Congress would limit the collection of domestic communication records. These proposals represent positive steps. The actions of U.S. intelligence agencies reflect our values as a nation. These agencies have a role to play in pursuing legitimate security interests, but they cannot bypass moral discernment. Having the ability to do something does not mean we should do it. Spying on allies has a long history, but that does not justify its continued use, especially given the invasive nature of surveillance today. The proposal by France and Germany to review intelligence gathering techniques makes sense and should be accepted by U.S. leaders.
Fifty years ago, Pope John XXIII, shortly before his death and the assassination of President Kennedy, left a testament to the world still relevant today. In his encyclical on global peace and human rights, “Pacem in Terris,” the pope wrote that “true and lasting peace among nations” must consist in “mutual trust.” This trust is important among allies and essential among adversaries. Relationships among nations cannot be driven by fear, competition and excessive reliance on espionage. There must be a level of trust that allows for greater collaboration in facing the global challenges and security needs that affect us all.