On a stage in a ballroom in the Walter Washington Convention Center on September 10, the heads of the United States’ intelligence community gathered to talk about the work their agencies perform and the challenges they face—or at least as much as they could in an unclassified environment. But the directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency also had one particular mission in mind as they took the stage at the Intelligence & National Security Summit, an industry event largely attended by government officials and contractors: stopping the poisoning of the public debate around their missions, and especially around the issue of encryption, by unreasonable haters.
CIA Director John Brennan suggested that negative public opinion and “misunderstanding” about the US intelligence community is in part “because of people who are trying to undermine” the mission of the NSA, CIA, FBI and other agencies. These people “may be fueled by our adversaries,” he said.
FBI Director James Comey referred to the backlash against his lobbying for backdoors into encrypted communications provided by the technology industry as “venom and deep cynicism” that are making a rational discussion about what could and should be done nearly impossible.
he “Big Six” of US Intelligence—Comey, Brennan, NSA Director Michael Rogers, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Vincent Stewart, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) Director Robert Cardillo, and National Reconnaissance Office Director Betty Sapp—spoke in a panel discussion that concluded the summit. The conversation, in part directed by questions from Fox News intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge, covered topics ranging from the Office of Personnel Management hack to Russian troops in Syria.
In response to a question submitted by Ars to the panel on how the government could get the global business community to trust encryption that provided a “golden key” to the FBI and the intelligence community, Comey said, “I don’t have an easy answer to that. I don’t think it’s right for the government to come up with the answer alone. We want to get past the crypto war thing—we all care about safety and security. And I support strong encryption—if my SF-86 [the Office of Personnel Management survey filled out by government employees as part of background investigations for security clearances] had been behind strong encryption, maybe someone wouldn’t be reading my SF-86 today.”
But Comey reiterated his concerns about information from terrorist and criminal cells “going dark because of encryption.” He noted that service providers already encrypt content coming from users and then decrypt it on their servers—making it accessible under warrant—and said that he felt that there are ways to provide the same sort of access more broadly. “There may be a thousand different solutions,” he said. “We have to get past the venom and the demonization around this.”
Comey said that he would be willing to set aside his push if it was shown to be impossible to provide the access but added, “I don’t think we’ve really tried to find answers yet because no one in the private sector has been properly incentivized.”
Why all the hate?
The opening statements from Comey and others were focused on that “venom,” as the intelligence chiefs—many of whom had just testified that morning with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on cybersecurity threats before the House Select Intelligence Committee—sought to make it clear that they were speaking largely to help shift the direction of public discourse about the Intelligence Community. Specifically, they want to find ways to end what they perceive as irrational hostility against their agendas.
“I have something on my mind that affects all the work we do as an intelligence community,” Comey said in his opening remarks. “I think that citizens should be skeptical of government power. But I fear it’s bled over to cynicism. It is something that is getting in the way of reasoned discussion, and I’m very concerned about how to change that trend of cynicism.” He sees that cynicism directed toward everyone from law enforcement officers on the beat to the intelligence community at large.
In particular, Comey said, he feels that his push for some way to gain backdoor access to encryption was “met with venom and deep cynicism.”
“How do we get to a healthier place in talking about authority?” he asked.
NSA head Rogers said that “we have got to engender a better dialogue” on security issues. “In the end, we serve the citizens of the nation… all the revelations [a reference to Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks] have made life more difficult for us.”
He said that there needs to be a way that “we can now get to a collective dialogue” about the role of the intelligence community. “A few years ago, we were talking past each other—it was all good versus bad. But these are complex issues. We need to sit down and talk as a nation about a direction forward. You can’t get there if you don’t work together, and vilify each other.”
When asked about what their agencies were doing to improve how they handled whistleblowers, Rogers, Brennan, and Comey all replied that they were encouraging people with questions to speak up. Comey said that it was essential to make people who felt that something was going on that wasn’t right to bring it up, and reward them for doing so. “We as leaders need to celebrate people who raise their hands,” Comey explained.
When asked by Herridge how the NSA could repair the public’s trust, Rogers said, “I don’t think we have fundamentally destroyed the public’s trust. Some feel that way, but we are accountable to the citizens of the nation, and the nation is counting on us. The nation needs the insights we generate and our computer expertise.”
“It is up to us through our actions to earn the public’s trust, and the effort to make the intelligence community’s processes more transparent are an effort to do just that,” he explained. “Broadly across the [intelligence community], if you look at what we’ve declassified over the past few years, it’s more than I’ve seen declassified in 30 years as an intelligence professional.”
On the topic of being more open, the NGA’s Cardillo spoke about how his agency is increasingly sharing data with people outside the intelligence community for humanitarian aid purposes, particularly as the agency continues to make use of commercial and open sources of imagery for its mapping and geospatial intelligence missions.”We’re either on the cusp or in the midst of a revolution” in geospatial intelligence, Cardillo said. “When I was growing up in this business, we operated in the closet, and it was a very expensive business. Today, while much of that is still necessary for key sets of our partners, more and more we’re getting a demand to take our success [in mapping and geospatial data] into the open.”
At the same time, the NGA and other agencies are increasingly turning to open sources of data to help fill out the picture. As part of the CIA’s ongoing reorganization, the agency is creating a “director of digital innovation” role as Internet and digital data sources and activities become more important.
“It’s the nature of the world now” that is driving the reliance on social media and other sources for intelligence data, Cardillo said. “Nation states are still a threat, but more and more we are dealing with places without governments, and along with traditional sources [of imagery and data] we have gained the added benefit of social media and other open sources. While that has great potential, it can also be overwhelming. It used to be about hunting for imagery, and today it’s more about filtering, gathering, and making sense of the noise.”
There are obvious limits to the intelligence community’s efforts at openness. A number of Herridge’s prepared questions were met with awkward silence and glances among the agency heads. And when Herridge asked who the current top threat to America is, Rogers protested, expressing how “frustrating” that question is. “The answer changes every hour,” he said, and added that the biggest problem the agencies face is being able to quickly re-prioritize efforts as each new threat emerges.