"Success cannot be advertised; failure cannot be explained. In the work of intelligence, heroes are undecorated and unsung, often even among their own fraternity."

That was how President Dwight D. Eisenhower summed up the challenge, the frustration and the duty of intelligence professionals. He was speaking on November 3, 1959, at the ceremony to lay the cornerstone of the new Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters in Langley, Virginia. In that era, there was no significant debate about the need for intelligence pros to operate in secret.

Shortly after New Year’s, the heads of the CIA, FBI, NSA (National Security Agency) and James Clapper, director of national intelligence, launched a public relations offensive to argue Russia, including President Vladimir Putin, hacked into email from the Clinton presidential campaign. With great fanfare, a meeting was held with President-elect Donald Trump to present evidence behind the conclusions. With equal hype, Clapper and friends testified before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.

Welcome to the latest reality TV show.

Why did this happen?

Certainly not primarily because of focus on United States national security. If the security of the nation were paramount, the agency heads should have said as little as possible publicly beyond confirming Russian involvement.

In future, the top spooks could help political campaigns to grow up and be discreet. Clinton emails are filled with arrogance, entitlement and gossip.

Did the leaks affect the 2016 presidential election? Perhaps, but if so that is because of the contents of the emails. Shrewd politicians avoid putting potentially damaging statements in writing.

The most plausible reason why the officials went public with lights, cameras and media melodrama has to do with self-protection in the political warfare of Washington. Politicians want to score points with anxious voters, and Putin is one scary bear. Agency directors are defending their turf.

James Clapper’s post of director of national intelligence was created in 2004 to coordinate intelligence agencies across the board. In 2013, he denied before Congress that our agencies collect data on Americans. The next year, Wikileaks released information from Edward Snowden showing data was collected.

Domestic surveillance is hardly new. In 1967, amid civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests, Army Gen. William P. Yarborough, assistant chief of staff for intelligence, sent an unprecedented request to the NSA to collect intelligence on the rapidly escalating domestic unrest. This sparked extensive domestic surveillance involving the Army and CIA as well as the NSA. In the following decade, the illegal program was exposed by Congress and stopped.

Also in 2013, the U.S. was shown publicly to have been spying on foreign leaders. This time, Clapper aggressively defended the practice rather than saying as little as possible. Powerful Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-California), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was sufficiently outraged to demand a review of all intelligence agencies. Minor changes followed

In earlier periods, intelligence work involved electronic and human surveillance. Today our government de-emphasizes human agents. In World War II and the Cold War, that dimension was vital. It still is, as our British partners well understand.

4 comments on this story

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-California), a successful tech entrepreneur, has been an insightful and effective critics of current inertia. Last year, he strenuously opposed FBI legal efforts to try to force Apple to decrypt the iPhone.

Issa and Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of both the CIA and the NSA, argued Apple should not be forced to comply. Rather, our own government professionals should handle hard tasks.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of ‘After the Cold War.’ Contact acyr@carthage.edu.