Democracy and Open Source Intelligence

As a republic, we long ago decided that we hold certain values as sacred. The opposition to cruelty toward prisoners is one of those values, which we enshrined in one of our most holy documents, the Bill of Rights. There can be no real question of whether torture in any form, psychological or physical, is an abomination. And yet the question has been raised.


Can we have dialogue with those who treat torture as an expedient and, therefore, morally justified means of gathering intelligence? The fact is that we have to engage in dialogue, regardless of our moral outrage at the practices of the CIA now coming to light. In other words, what choice do we have? Government bodies have a vested interest in protecting their members from prosecution. Those of us who wish to see justice served are, almost by definition, out of power. So our hope is to engage in a substantive dialogue.


The fact that we have multiple intelligence agencies working in the shadows is a primary source of the United States’ failure to live up to her values. And, overall, those agencies are not very good at what they do. Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA goes some way to exposing the Company’s failure as an agency. That same troubled history exposes the incompatibility of our values of openness, respect for human dignity and government by the people with the existence of a shadowy arm of the government.


The fact is that we get as good or better intelligence from careful investigative reporting than we do from clandestine operations.


So long as we maintain agencies that operate in the shadows, there will be shadowy operations. It is only a failure of imagination that sees no other option than a clandestine service. And if we do away with the clandestine services, we will do away with torture. At least, we will do away with secret torture. Even Abu Ghraib was a result of secrecy insofar as the inner workings of the prison system were not aired.


To speak symbolically, light dispels the darkness.


Open source intelligence is the primary alternative to clandestine operations, and it has proven itself. In the run up to the war in Iraq, you were much less likely to buy into the case that Iraq was hiding an operating WMD program if you used a solid, non-partisan news source such as NPR, PBS or print media. The same can be said for believing such fables as that the 9/11 terrorists were Iraqis, that there was clear evidence of a link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, or that world opinion supported our war in Iraq.


Open source intelligence is inherently self-correcting, if we can strip away the blinders of ideology. FOX News users performed horribly in the tests I mentioned above. Ideology does color the news. But not necessarily. Ideology, despite the post-modern claims to the contrary, is not built in to how we conceptualize the world. It does, however, take care and work to avoid falling into the trap of the easy hermeneutics of ideological thinking. Thankfully, there are always careful thinkers among us. In a democracy they also have a voice, however small it may be. And, therefore, we have a corrective to poor thinking and reporting.


Government decisions, by the people and by leaders, should only be made by the fully informed. This is only possible in the light of open source intelligence.


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