Commentary | 19 June 2014

How to keep public support for spying

How to Keep Public Support for Spying

Sam Roggeveen

The Wall Street Journal

19 June 2014

Please click here for full text

  • Sam Roggeveen

How to Keep Public Support for Spying

Sam Roggeveen

The Wall Street Journal

19 June 2014

Please click here for full text

  • Sam Roggeveen

Executive Summary

The Edward Snowden leaks exposed the activity of Western intelligence agencies and embarrassed governments in an unprecedented way. Even those being spied upon found the situation awkward and damaging. It turns out that exposés of spying are a negative-sum game for all involved. But Australia's experience with Mr. Snowden suggests a way out of this problem for Western governments fretting about future leaks.

To understand the "lose-lose" nature of intelligence leaks, consider the NSA's eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, revealed in October 2013. If Ms. Merkel had been given a choice about whether to deal with the NSA eavesdropping issue publicly or privately, is there any doubt she would have chosen the private option? Not only would it have avoided a months-long public breach with Washington, it might have given Germany some leverage in its dealings with the U.S.

The same goes for Indonesia's relations with Australia, which deteriorated after it was revealed in late 2013 that Canberra was spying on senior Indonesians, including the wife of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Some Indonesian politicians burnished their nationalist credentials by coming down hard on the Aussies in the aftermath of the revelations. But the Indonesian government would certainly have rather avoided the crisis altogether. Neither government gained from the episode.

After the U.S. and U.K., no other government has suffered as much damage from the Snowden leaks as Australia. Yet it turns out that the Australian public is remarkably tolerant of intelligence activities. The Lowy Institute for International Policy's annual poll of Australian public opinion, released earlier this month, found that 70% of Australians consider it "acceptable" that its government spies on countries with which Australia does not have good relations. The figure is 50% even when it concerns a government with which Canberra does have good relations. As for Indonesia, 62% of Australians think it is acceptable to spy on Jakarta.

Enlarge Image

Getty Images

This is the first time the Lowy Institute has polled the public on such questions, so we cannot know what Australians thought before the Snowden leaks emerged. But these results suggest that Snowden has not done the public perception of these intelligence agencies any harm, and might even have done some good.

This sounds counter-intuitive at first. But as a number of wise commentators have pointed out, in democratic societies, the agencies that conduct clandestine intelligence-gathering must always carry a sense of public support. To maintain this legitimacy, intelligence activities require a certain level of informed consent.

In the U.K., U.S. and Australia, the Snowden leaks have acted as an impromptu test of whether the public considers the intelligence gathering legitimate. Australians were suddenly exposed, in more detail than the government would ever have allowed, to what the spy agencies do on the public's behalf. The result, as the Lowy Institute poll shows, is a strong endorsement of that clandestine activity.

This should both reassure these governments and invite reflection on how intelligence leaks can be managed in future. The risk of future Snowdens can never be completely eliminated. In fact, given the growth in the number of staff and contractors with high security clearances in these countries since 9/11, that risk may be rising. And Mr. Snowden himself is not done yet—estimates of how many documents he stole vary wildly, but it is safe to say that only a small percentage have been released.

So instead of waiting for the next classified data dump, would it not be wise for governments to think about relaxing some of the secrecy that surrounds their intelligence agencies? As Kevin Kelly, cofounder of Wired magazine, has suggested, a system of controlled pre-emptive leaking would be preferable to the diplomatic scramble that inevitably accompanies a massive uncontrolled leak.

By now, these agencies should have a pretty good idea of what Mr. Snowden took and what could be released next. So why don't governments get ahead of the next scoop by releasing the information themselves, giving them the chance to deal with the leak on their own terms and to their own timetable? This strategy would even allow them to pre-emptively brief any foreign governments that are liable to be embarrassed, thus softening the diplomatic blow.

The intelligence agencies themselves would not be suited to such a role, but a more robust parliamentary or congressional oversight system could have a role in deciding what is released. It could also work with the executive to manage these releases.

The Lowy Institute poll suggests that the public can handle far more truth about spying than governments are currently prepared to reveal. No government would voluntarily disclose what Mr. Snowden has exposed, but perhaps governments and their intelligence agencies can meet the public halfway. It will reinforce the legitimacy of their intelligence gathering domestically, and strengthen their hand internationally.

Mr. Roggeveen is editor of the Interpreter, a web magazine published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.