The brouhaha over some of the National Security Agency’s collection activities is the most recent example of a tendency—by the public, the press and the Congress—to treat certain controversial issues of public policy as if they were problems with particular government institutions even when they really aren’t. Of course, government institutions, like other institutions, often have problems, whether of ineffectiveness, inefficiency or even malfeasance. But what I am referring to instead are policies and programs that, although implemented by a particular department or agency, exist for reasons found elsewhere—and with the mere existence of the policy or program, more than how it is implemented, being the main point of controversy.
This phenomenon can arise with any government component, but intelligence agencies seem especially liable to be viewed in this misplaced way. Scott Shane of the New York Times observes that U.S. intelligence agencies “have entered a period of broad public scrutiny and skepticism,” citing controversies over interrogation and drone strikes as well as the more recent attention to electronic surveillance. The fact that these agencies, by mission and charter, do not make policy means that any perceptions that they are the drivers of whatever policy is the subject of controversy are very likely incorrect. The secrecy that surrounds these agencies and contributes to ignorance about them is another factor, although occasionally journalists shed corrective light on the subject, as Walter Pincus of the Washington Post has done with regard to the specific NSA-implemented electronic collection programs that are at the center of the most recent controversies.
Those programs do not exist because someone at NSA thought it would be nifty to expand the agency’s operations by doing something like that. They exist because the American public—with its desires and demands expressed through the political branches of government—wanted vigorous intelligence efforts on behalf of counterterrorism and because the technology is such that large-scale electronic collection is one of the most promising ways of making such efforts. NSA is implementing the programs because it is the component that happens to have the mission and capability to do such things. The purpose, general parameters and limitations of the programs all have been set outside the agency. The specific operational designs are the work of NSA, but any design that was not intensive and extensive would not have delivered the expected vigor.
The Central Intelligence Agency has figured even more often than NSA into such misdirected controversy. Although recent times have featured issues involving the handling of detainees, a variety of covert actions that later come to light have for many years illustrated the popular conflation of controversial policies with the agency charged with implementing them. The legal framework for covert action that has been in place since the 1970s forces the direct involvement of the most senior policy-makers, including the president, and Congressional leaders. What the agency doing the implementing can and cannot do is carefully detailed and circumscribed. CIA frequently gets involved in implementation because it happens to be the agency with the most capability to do things overseas covertly. But it makes about as much sense to refer to an operation as a “CIA covert action” as it would to refer to the “Department of Defense war in Iraq.”
One reason for the conflation of institutions with policies, and for the projection onto the former of controversies about the latter, is that this imparts a satisfying concreteness to what might otherwise be a rather inchoate and difficult-to-understand issue. Directing one’s dissatisfaction to a known, named institution with familiar initials feels better than directing it against a policy process in which there may have been many hands. Hauling officials from those institutions before Congressional committees in public hearings makes things even more concrete and seemingly tractable by applying specific names and faces to the subject.
Another reason for treating controversies this way is that it helps the public and political leaders to avoid having to confront squarely the role that the public and political leaders themselves played in bringing about what became controversial. It makes it easier to overlook the inconsistency of their own mood swings, their changing demands, and their prior support for what later came to be seen as blunders or scandals.
This lack of self-confrontation by the public and political class (and often by the press) leads to the biggest cost of the misdirected conflation of institutions with issues. It impedes the correction of national mistakes. Reducing the chance of blunder or scandal in the future requires full discussion and understanding of everything that led to blunders and scandals in the past. Simply characterizing something as a problem with the XYZ agency does not do that.
There is a second, lesser though still significant, cost that concerns the impact of the conflation on the institutions themselves and the people who work in them. The people in the intelligence agencies are mostly accustomed to being buffeted by such uproars and are pretty good about soldiering on regardless of being knocked around over controversies not of their own making. But knock people around enough times and it is bound to have some effect on concentration and morale. The hazard is increased by the fact that these people are part of a larger federal work force that also has been subjected to other forms of abuse. If we keep treating people in such ways, then we are likely to see real institutional problems develop.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published by The National Interest.